Typical Workarounds For Compliant Logs

You may think you have logs. Chances are, you can rely on them only for tracing exceptions and debugging. But you can’t rely on them for compliance, forensics, or any legal matter. And that may be none of your concern as an engineer, but it is one of those important non-functional requirements that, if not met, are ultimately our fault.

Because of my audit trail startup, I’m obviously both biased and qualified to discuss logs (I’ve previously described what audit trail / audit logs are and how they can be maintained). And while they are a only a part of the security aspects, and certainly not very exciting, they are important, especially from a legal standpoint. That’s why many standards and laws – including ISO 27001, PCI-DSS, HIPAA, SOC 2, PSD2, GDPR – require audit trail functionality. And most of them have very specific security requirements.

PCI-DSS has a bunch of sections with audit trail related requirements:

10.2.3
“Malicious users often attempt to alter audit logs to hide their actions, and a record of access allows an organization to trace any inconsistencies or potential tampering of the logs to an individual account. [..]”

10.5 Secure audit trails so they cannot be altered. Often a malicious individual who has entered the network will attempt to edit the audit logs in order to hide their activity. Without adequate protection of audit logs, their completeness, accuracy, and integrity cannot be guaranteed, and the audit logs can be rendered useless as an investigation tool after a compromise.

10.5.5
Use file-integrity monitoring or change-detection software on logs to ensure that existing log data cannot be changed without generating alerts (although new data being added should not cause an alert).

ISO 27001 Annex A also speaks about protecting the audit trail against tampering

A.12.4.2 Protection of log information
Logging facilities and log information shall be protected against tampering and unauthorized access

From my experience, sadly, logs are rarely fully compliant. However, auditors are mostly fine with that and certification is given, even though logs can be tampered with. I decided to collect and list the typical workarounds the the secure, tamper-evident/tamper-protected audit logs.

  • We don’t need them secured – you almost certainly do. If you need to be compliant – you do. If you don’t need to be compliant, but you have a high-value / high-impact system, you do. If it doesn’t have to be compliant and it’s low-value or low-impact, than yes. You don’t need much security for that anyway (but be careful to not underestimate the needed security)
  • We store it in multiple places with different access – this is based on the assumption that multiple administrators won’t conspire to tamper with the logs. And you can’t guarantee that, of course. But even if you are sure they won’t, you can’t prove that to external parties. Imagine someone sues you and you provide logs as evidence. If the logs are not tamper-evident, the other side can easily claim you have fabricated logs and make them inadmissible evidence.
  • Our system is so complicated, nobody knows how to modify data without breaking our integrity checks – this is the “security through obscurity” approach and it will probably work well … until it doesn’t.
  • We store it with external provider – external log providers usually claim they provide compliance. And they do provide many aspects of compliance, mainly operational security around the log collection systems. Besides, in that case you (or your admins) can’t easily modify the externally stored records. Some providers may give you the option to delete records, which isn’t great for audit trail. The problem with such services is that they keep the logs operational for relatively short periods of time and then export them in a form that can be tampered with. Furthermore, you can’t really be sure that the logs are not tampered with. Yes, the provider is unlikely to care about your logs, but having that as the main guarantee doesn’t sound perfect.
  • We are using trusted timestamping – and that’s great, it covers many aspects of the logs integrity. AWS is timestamping their CloudTrail log files and it’s certainly a good practice. However, it comes short in just one scenario – someone deleting an entire timestamped file. And because it’s a whole file, rather than record-by-record, you won’t know which record exactly was targeted. There’s another caveat – if the TSA is under your control, you can backdate timestamps and therefore can’t prove that you didn’t fabricate logs.

These approaches are valid and are somewhere on a non-zero point on the compliance spectrum. Is having four copies of the data accessible to different admins better than having just one? Yup. Is timestamping with a local TSA better than not timestamping? Sure. Is using an external service more secure than using a local one? Yes. Are they sufficient to get certified? Apparently yes. Is this the best that can be done? No. Do you need the best? Sometimes yes.

Most of these measures are organizational rather than technical, and organizational measures can be reversed or circumvented much more easily than technical ones. And I may be too paranoid, but when I was a government advisor, I had to be paranoid when it comes to security.

And what do I consider a non-workaround? There is a lot of research around tamper-evident logging, tamper-evident data structures, merkle trees, hash chains. Here’s just one example. It should have been mainstream by now, but it isn’t. We’ve apparently settled on suboptimal procedures (even when it comes to cost), and we’ve interpreted the standards loosely, looking for a low-hanging fruit. And that’s fine for some organizations. I guess.

It takes time for a certain good practice to become mainstream, and it has to be obvious. Tamper-evident logging isn’t obvious. We had gradually become more aware about properly storing passwords, using TLS, multi-factor authentication. But security is rarely a business priority, as seen in reports about what drives security investments (it’s predominantly “compliance”).

As a practical conclusion – if you are going to settle for a workaround, at least choose a better one. Not having audit trail or not making any effort to protect it from tampering should be out of the question.

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