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Report: IT shops lax about logging

New research suggests enterprises are taking a half-baked approach to log management, compromising security in the process.

If a new report from the SANS Institute is any indication, enterprises are jeopardizing security by taking a sloppy approach to log keeping. As a result, the report recommends some companies abandon home-grown logging systems in favor of commercial tools or simply outsource the task.

"If you go into a room full of IT managers and ask how many are working on home-grown log solutions, half the room will raise their hands," said Stephen Northcutt, director of training and certification for the Bethesda, Md.-based institute. "Why is that bad? Because the guy who writes it leaves and doesn't document what he did or leave instructions behind. Then the person who takes over can't figure out how to interpret the logs or what to do if there's a problem."

Security experts have long advised that a clear audit trail is necessary to track suspicious network activity and quickly respond to security incidents. Northcutt agreed, and said companies that decide to take it seriously should "buy a commercial tool and pray that it works" or "get help from a MSSP."

Window dressing for compliance's sake
As part of the research, SANS polled 1,067 security-minded system administrators from a variety of industries. "Slightly over one fourth of the respondents stated that they retained logs for over one year. Almost half of the respondents [44%] don't keep logs more than a month," the report said. "Since many regulatory and accounting bodies are recommending or even requiring log retention of three to seven years, why do so many companies have such short retention times?"

Those who answered the question cited three key problems: the amount of data to manage, the speed the log data comes in and the lack of a consistent format for the log data. "Closely related to all of these is a lack of manpower," the report said. "It takes people to maintain a logging system and more people to monitor it and, of course, man hours relates to money."

"That's not far off target," said Diane McQueen, systems engineer for Perot Systems, which manages IT security for the nonprofit Northern Arizona Healthcare hospital chain. "With the amount of paperwork auditing produces, a big problem is taking the time to look through those logs. It's a resource issue."

The report said many companies do nothing with their logs. At best, they look through them after an incident as they scramble to find the source of a problem. Another downside is that companies are often so zealous to satisfy the regulatory letter of such laws as HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley and Graham-Leach-Bliley that they hobble together half-baked logging systems.

The more diverse your environment, the more you need outside help.
Stephen Northcutt
director of training and certificationSANS Institute

"For the smaller guys, it can be cheaper to pay the fine than pay for everything needed for full compliance," Northcutt said. "There are those who do window dressing to appear to be in compliance, but they're not really using their tools. They're not taking this seriously day to day."

The big picture may be worse than the survey suggests, said Adam Nunn, security and corporate compliance manager for a large U.S. healthcare organization. Nunn said his organization takes log management very seriously and that efforts are underway to further improve the system. But, he added, "Most of the smaller health care providers I am familiar with are seriously lacking logging capability" or they don't really review the logs they have.

Federal requirements boosting awareness
At the same time, the need to be in compliance with laws like HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley has helped IT managers understand the need to take log management more seriously.

"As computers become more numerous and regulation compliance becomes more a part of daily life, some system administrators are finding that log management is becoming a problem," the report said. "The scripts and manual processes that have historically been used by 80% of the market need to be upgraded. This has resulted in a relatively new log management industry. Log issues tend to snowball as the size of a company grows."

In a recent report on organizations struggling with HIPAA's security rules, IT managers said regulatory demands had prompted them to improve their logging systems and invest in new tools.

"I have become a big advocate of the phrase 'trust but verify,'" Nunn said. "We must use the logging mechanism as a primary way to prevent unauthorized activity and enforce compliance of insiders and be able to track where our information is going and who accessed it."

Related information

Why audit trails are critical to HIPAA compliance

Are you using security technology effectively?

While he stressed the need for some companies to buy commercial tools or outsource their log keeping, Northcutt said the in-house programs are not always a bad thing.

"A locally-developed software solution isn't wrong per se. But if you go for the home-grown solution, your chances of success are better if you're an all-Windows or all-Unix shop," he said. "If you mix your operating systems, you're going to run into trouble. The more diverse your environment, the more you need outside help."

McQueen's advice to IT managers struggling with log management is this: "Set up your standards and adopt a tool that will alert you to any changes on the network," she said. "For example, if a new user comes on, the tool should alert you to its presence. That way, you don't have to spend time scanning the user directories every day to keep track of new users or other changes."

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