Audit Trail Overview

As part of my current project (secure audit trail) I decided to make a survey about the use of audit trail “in the wild”.

I haven’t written in details about this project of mine (unlike with some other projects). Mostly because it’s commercial and I don’t want to use my blog as a direct promotion channel (though I am doing that at the moment, ironically). But the aim of this post is to shed some light on how audit trail is used.

The survey can be found here. The questions are basically: does your current project have audit trail functionality, and if yes, is it protected from tampering. If not – do you think you should have such functionality.

The results are interesting (although with only around 50 respondents)

So more than half of the systems (on which respondents are working) don’t have audit trail. While audit trail is recommended by information security and related standards, it may not find place in the “busy schedule” of a software project, even though it’s fairly easy to provide a trivial implementation (e.g. I’ve written how to quickly setup one with Hibernate and Spring)

A trivial implementation might do in many cases but if the audit log is critical (e.g. access to sensitive data, performing financial operations etc.), then relying on a trivial implementation might not be enough. In other words – if the sysadmin can access the database and delete or modify the audit trail, then it doesn’t serve much purpose. Hence the next question – how is the audit trail protected from tampering:

And apparently, from the less than 50% of projects with audit trail, around 50% don’t have technical guarantees that the audit trail can’t be tampered with. My guess is it’s more, because people have different understanding of what technical measures are sufficient. E.g. someone may think that digitally signing your log files (or log records) is sufficient, but in fact it isn’t, as whole files (or records) can be deleted (or fully replaced) without a way to detect that. Timestamping can help (and a good audit trail solution should have that), but it doesn’t guarantee the order of events or prevent a malicious actor from deleting or inserting fake ones. And if timestamping is done on a log file level, then any not-yet-timestamped log file is vulnerable to manipulation.

The final answer – do you think audit trail is important for the system you are working on – got 50%+ “Yes, very important” and around 25% “Yes, desirable”. So the overall understanding is that it’s indeed needed, but maybe the time it takes to implement properly is a factor in leaving it at the bottom of the backlog.

I’ve written about event logs before and their two flavours – event sourcing and audit trail. An event log can effectively be considered audit trail, but you’d need additional security to avoid the problems mentioned above.

So, let’s see what would various levels of security and usefulness of audit logs look like. There are many papers on the topic (e.g. this and this), and they often go into the intricate details of how logging should be implemented. I’ll try to give an overview of the approaches:

  • Regular logs – rely on regular INFO log statements in the production logs to look for hints of what has happened. This may be okay, but is harder to look for evidence (as there is non-auditable data in those log files as well), and it’s not very secure – usually logs are collected (e.g. with graylog) and whoever has access to the log collector’s database (or search engine in the case of Graylog), can manipulate the data and not be caught
  • Designated audit trail – whether it’s stored in the database or in logs files. It has the proper business-event level granularity, but again doesn’t prevent or detect tampering. With lower risk systems that may is perfectly okay.
  • Timestamped logs – whether it’s log files or (harder to implement) database records. Timestamping is good, but if it’s not an external service, a malicious actor can get access to the local timestamping service and issue fake timestamps to either re-timestamp tampered files or to insert fake old events. Even if the timestamping is not compromised, whole entries can be deleted. The fact that they are missing can sometimes be deduced based on other factors (e.g. hour of rotation), but regularly verifying that is extra effort and may not always be feasible.
  • Hash chaining – each entry (or sequence of log files) could be chained (just as blockchain transactions) – the next one having the hash of the previous one. This is a good solution (whether it’s local, external or 3rd party), but it has the risk of someone modifying or deleting a record, getting your entire chain and re-hashing it. All the checks will pass, but the data will not be correct
  • Hash chaining with anchoring – the head of the chain (the hash of the last entry/block) could be “anchored” to an external service that is outside the capabilities of a malicious actor. Ideally, a public blockchain, alternatively – paper, a public service (twitter), email, etc. That way a malicious actor can’t just rehash the whole chain, because any check against the external service would fail.
  • WORM storage (write once, ready many). You could send your audit logs almost directly to WORM storage, where it’s impossible to replace data. However, that is not ideal, as WORM storage can be slow and expensive. For example AWS Glacier has rather big retrieval times and searching through recent data makes it impractical. It’s actually cheaper than S3, for example, and you can have expiration policies. But having to support your own WORM storage is expensive. It is a good idea to eventually send the logs to WORM storage, but “fresh” audit trail should probably not be “archived” so that it’s searchable and some actionable insight can be gained from it.
  • All-in-one – applying all of the above “just in case” may be unnecessary for every project out there, but that’s what I decided to do at LogSentinel. Business-event granularity with timestamping, hash chaining, anchoring, and eventually putting to WORM storage – I think that provides both security guarantees and flexibility.

I hope the overview is useful and the results from the survey shed some light on how this aspect of information security is underestimated.

1 thought on “Audit Trail Overview”

  1. Valueable contribution to research planning this space. I have decided just to log just interaction user object for now. Object event listeners can be handy to use for tis logger.

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