Alert Verification: Determining the Success of Intrusion Attempts

Christopher Kruegel, William Robertson
In Proceedings of the Conference on Detection of Intrusions and Malware & Vulnerability Assessment (DIMVA)

intrusion detection

Recently, intrusion detection systems (IDSs) have been increasingly brought to task for failing to meet the expectations that researchers and vendors were raising. Promises that IDSs would be capable of reliably identifying malicious activity never turned into reality. While virus scanners and firewalls have visible benefits and remain virtually unnoticed during normal operation, intrusion detection systems are known for producing a large number of alerts that are either not related to malicious activity (false positives) or not representative of a successful attack (non-relevant positives). Although tuning and proper configuration may eliminate the most obvious spurious alerts, the problem of the vast imbalance between actual and false or non-relevant alerts remains.

One problem is the fact that intrusion detection systems are often run without any (or very limited) information of the network resources that they protect. Marty Roesch, the developer of Snort [Sno, Ro99], routinely brings up this point in his whitepaper [RNA] and posts to security mailing lists [Sec] and calls for an IDS that possesses knowledge of the network components it defends. The classic example that Marty uses is the scenario of a Code Red attack that targets a Linux web server. It is a valid attack that is seen on the network, however, the alert that an IDS raises is of no use because the service is not vulnerable (as Code Red can only exploit vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s IIS web server). To mitigate this problem, Roesch introduces a concept called RNA, real-time network awareness [RNA]. RNA is based on passive network monitoring to establish an overview of the hosts and services that are being protected. This overview contains enough contextual information to distinguish between Linux and Windows servers, thus enabling a “network-aware” IDS to discard a Code Red attack against a Linux machine.

The problem is that the concept of network-awareness is not broad enough to completely capture the complexity that is at the core of excessive amounts of false alarms. When a sensor outputs an alert, there are three possibilities.

  1. The sensor has correctly identified a successful attack. This alert is most likely relevant (i.e., a true positive).
  2. The sensor has correctly identified an attack, but the attack failed to meet its objectives (i.e., non-relevant positive).
  3. The sensor incorrectly identified an event as an attack. The alert represents incorrect information (i.e., a false positive).

Most people/sites are only interested in type-1 alerts. Although some sites might be interested in failed attack attempts (type-2), the corresponding alert should be differentiated from a successful instance. The key idea of alert verification is to distinguish between successful and failed intrusion attempts (both false and non-relevant positives). While contextual information can be helpful to perform this distinction (as we have seen in the example with the Code Red worm above), it is not always sufficient. Consider a Code Red worm attacking a patched Microsoft IIS server. In this case, it is not enough to know which operating system the host is using, but it is also required to know which application is running and which patches have been applied.

Alert verification is a term that we use for all mechanisms that can help to determine whether an attack was successful or not. This information is passed to the intrusion detection system to help differentiate between type-1 alerts on one hand and type-2 and type-3 alerts on the other hand. When the success of an attack is a priori impossible (e.g., no vulnerable service is running) or cannot be verified (e.g., the attack failed because incorrect offsets were used), the IDS can react accordingly and suppress the alert or reduce its priority.