Want to Improve Cloud Security? It Starts with Logging

Remedying the "garbage in, garbage out" problem requires an understanding of what is causing the problem in the first place.

Chris Calvert, VP Product Strategy, Co-Founder, Respond Software

April 3, 2020

4 Min Read

When using event logs to monitor for security violations and incidents, the quality of output is determined by the quality of the input. Much of the logging being used is subpar, and there has been little industry incentive to fix it. This, in turn, is preventing true cloud security because cloud platform logs don't contain useful information.

It doesn't have to be this way. Remedying the "garbage in, garbage out" problem is possible, but it requires an understanding of what is causing the problem in the first place.

The Hidden Problem
Enterprises collect and log data from a variety of IT and security devices. Most software applications and systems produce log files, which include all of the automatically produced and time-stamped documentation of recent system activity. Enterprises then use this data to monitor, protect, understand, and manage their technology-enabled businesses. The data sources have the potential to provide visibility across many different technical perspectives: network, security, application, host-based, cloud, and contextual telemetries, to start. Within each of these categories are infrastructure devices that produce logs and sensors focused on monitoring, be it for IT operations or security.

This log data is the unassuming superhero of IT data. It may not look like much initially, but it has much power. But not all logging is created equal. Much of the data can be inconsistent, hard to understand, and focused only on system or application break/fix. There is little information that could indicate something was potentially malicious.

And if the logging you're using is poor, it's going to have a negative effect on all of your other security measures. While there are common logging formats and methods, there's little agreement or commonality in how the information contained should be used for specific purposes. As a result, logs can be hard to leverage effectively for any purpose.

Compounding this, the law of inertia is at play with respect to how logging currently works. Essentially, there's a pervasive attitude of "it's not broke, don't fix it" – even though, in reality, the way logging is done actually is broken. Security teams are motivated toward change, but how much leverage does a five-person security team have on the likes of Microsoft to produce better logs for Active Directory or Office 365?

This doesn't mean change is impossible. Rather, the leverage for change starts with the procurement department. In other words, market change is driven by purchasing behavior. So it's up to us to economically influence improvements in log quality. This should become a point of competitive selection.

Best Practices and What to Ask of Your Vendor
So how do you ensure you're getting the most out of your logging? There are a few best practices to follow. These include:

  • Focus on the logs that do contain judgment about the potential of malicious activity or find ways to inject that judgment onto the logs with context and security expertise.

  • Only log from sources that matter and collect the information that can support detection and remediation effectively

  • Dial up your security-specific sensors to 11. Make them as loud as possible to give you the most comprehensive visibility – and demand that your vendors produce better security visibility into what's going on with their products.

When it comes to assessing vendors for your logging, it's important to ask some key questions about their solutions and how they work before committing to one. They should be able to answer the following questions for you:

  • What are the most common attack vectors against your product?

  • How many malicious scenarios will your logs identify?

  • How hard is it to parse them so they're normalized with other similar technologies?

  • What's the most effective way to monitor your logging for malicious activity?

  • Do you have a center of excellence for security monitoring of your technology?

  • Which standard log formats are used for output?

  • How hard it is it to introduce new logs based on new attack techniques? What's your update frequency?

If a potential vendor can't or won't explain these things things to you fully, it's time to keep searching for one that can and will.

Making Change Worthwhile
"Garbage in, garbage out" is clearly not a good way to approach a security monitoring strategy. It puts organizations at risk and sucks up too much budget and staff time to be sustainable or tenable. Rather, organizations must incentivize vendors to develop better logging capabilities by making it a purchasing sticking point. Use the best practices and questions above to get the logging capabilities your organization needs to keep your network safe.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Calvert

VP Product Strategy, Co-Founder, Respond Software

Chris Calvert has over 30 years of experience in defensive information security: 14 years in the defense and intelligence community and 17 years in the commercial industry. He has worked on the Defense Department Joint Staff and held leadership positions in both large and small companies, including IBM and HPE. He has designed, built, and managed global security operations centers and incident response teams for six of the global Fortune 50. As Chris often says, if you have complaints about today's security operations model, you can partially blame him. It's from his firsthand experience in learning the limitations of the man vs. data SecOps model that Chris leads product design and strategy for Respond Software.

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