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Diomidis Spinellis Publications
- Diomidis Spinellis and
domain-specific language of intrusion detection.
In Proceedings of the 1st ACM Workshop on Intrusion Detection
Systems. ACM, November 2000.
A Domain-specific Language for Intrusion Detection
and Dimitris Gritzalis2
We describe the use of a domain-specific language (DSL)
for expressing critical
design values and constraints in an intrusion detection application.
Through the use of this specialised language information
that is critical to the correct operation of the software can be
expressed in a form that can be easily drafted, verified, and
maintained by domain experts (security officers) thus minimising the
risk inherent from the mediation of software engineers.
panoptis is a DSL-based low-cost, easy-to-use intrusion detection system
using the process accounting records kept by most Unix systems.
A set of databases contain resource usage profiles for processes,
terminals, users, and time intervals.
Panoptis monitors new process data against the recorded profiles and
reports on entities diverging from the established resource usage envelopes
implying possible data security threats.
security monitoring, intrusion detection, Unix process accounting.
is an intrusion detection system based on the process accounting records
produced by all widely-used versions of Unix.
These records, originally intended for producing billing information,
can be used to detect anomalous situations and alert the security
The voluminous nature of the process accounting records prohibits manual
inspection; Panoptis keeps detailed databases keyed by users, terminals,
processes, and time intervals containing typical usage profiles.
A novel aspect of Panoptis is the use of a domain-specific language (DSL)
for the specification of the items that will be checked.
Panoptis detects and reports all entities that execute outside the
defined profile envelopes and automatically updates the databases to reduce
the administrative burden and reporting volume.
On a system that has an established pattern of use entities outside the
normal usage envelopes are
likely to be associated with information security breaches.
Data threats that can be detected in this way include wiretapping, browsing,
leakage, tampering, and masquerading [Den83].
An example of Panoptis's output can be seen in Figure 1.
Database Users*Commands, key [root/grep]:
New maximum user time (2.52 / 2.08)
New maximum disk block input/output (10.94 / 8)
New maximum clock time (14.55 / 13.63)
New maximum character input/output (18427 / 13097)
Command: grep Terminal: tty01 User: root
Executed from: 13/06/95 12:30:55 to: 13/06/95 12:31:09 (14.55 seconds)
spending 1.73 seconds in kernel space and 2.52 seconds in user space
(4.25 total) and using the CPU for 29% of the time.
Character I/O: 18427 characters (average I/O: 4335.74 characters/CPU second)
Disk I/O: 10.94 K (average I/O: 2.57 K/CPU second)
Memory accounted: 0.88 K (average size: 0.10 K)
An example of an Panoptis report.
The heuristic and quantitative nature of our approach extends the
range of data security threats that can be detected beyond the closed
computer system environment into the organisational environment that hosts
As an example Panoptis could detect an employee transferring inordinately
large amounts of data to a computer outside the organisation even if
that employee had proper system authorisations to perform such
Although Panoptis was implemented under the Unix operating system the
approach and techniques we used are applicable to other operating
systems keeping process accounting records.
As an example, the Windows NT audit event log can be used in
a similar way.
1.1 Domain-specific languages
A domain-specific language [Ram97]
is a programming language
tailored specifically for an application domain: rather than
being general purpose it captures precisely the domain's semantics.
Examples of DSLs include
lex and yacc [JL87]
used for program lexical analysis and parsing,
HTML [BLC95] used for document mark-up, and
VHDL used for electronic hardware descriptions.
Domain-specific languages allow the concise description of an application's
logic reducing the semantic distance between the problem and the program
DSLs are, by definition, special purpose languages.
Any system architecture encompassing one or more DSLs is
typically structured as a confederation of modules; some implemented
in one of the DSLs and the rest implemented using a general purpose
As a design choice for implementing security software
DSLs present two distinct advantages over
a ``hard-coded'' program logic:
- Concrete Expression of Security Policies
Security policies are not coded into the system or stored in
an arcane file format; they are captured in a concrete human-readable form.
Policies expressed in the DSL can be
scrutinised, split, combined, shared, published,
put under release control, printed, commented,
and even be automatically generated by other applications.
- Direct Involvement of the Security Officer
The DSL expression style
can often be designed so as to match the format typically used by
the security officer.
This results in keeping the experts in a very tight software lifecycle
loop where they can directly specify, implement, verify, and validate,
without the need of coding intermediaries.
Even if the DSL is not high-level enough to be used as a specification
language by the security officer, it may still be possible to involve the
security officer in code walkthroughts far more productive than those over
code expressed in a general purpose language.
1.2 Unix Process Accounting Records
Most modern versions of Unix provide the capability of process
The operating system kernel creates a file containing an accounting
record for every process that terminates.
Each record contains for a given process the following vector:
- Ui, Gi: its user and group identification,
- Ct: its controlling terminal,
- Tb: the time the process began,
- Tr, Ts, Tu: the real, system and user times used by the process,
- Mt: its total memory usage,
- Ct, Dt: its total character and disk input/output,
- N: the name of the command that started the process, and
- E, F: its exit status and associated flags.
Based on the above data the following quantities can be derived for every
- Tl: the local time of the day the process started found by converting the
time the process began to local time,
- Tt: the total CPU time consumed by the process as the sum of the
system and user times (Ts + Tu),
- Ma: average memory usage as the memory accounted divided by
the CPU time (Mt/Tt),
- Ca, Da: average character,
and disk input/output as the respective quantity
divided by the CPU time (Ct/Tt, Dt/Tt),
- H: CPU ``hog'' factor as the process's CPU time
divided by the actual time it executed (Tt/Tr), and
- the number of times the process run in a specific time interval.
A number of programs are typically provided for processing the
accounting records, but these are geared towards providing billing
and system performance tuning information.
In the following sections we will describe how a domain-specific
language can be used to specify the way parts of the process accounting
data space can be grouped and checked for intrusion detection
2 Intrusion Detection Data Space
Panoptis monitors the system processes in three independent dimensions:
The three dimensions described above can be tailored via a configuration
file to a setup that is suitable for the system being monitored.
In addition, terminal and user names can be grouped in logical
sets to avoid the generation of redundant messages.
As an example all users of the same application or toolset can be
defined as one group, because we expect them to have similar usage profiles.
One profile will be defined and used for all of them, but any leap
outside the profile will be directly attributable to a specific user.
Similarly, a pool of terminals that are interchangeably used in a room
should be grouped together, because they too will have statistically
similar usage profiles.
- The accounting data
This data corresponds to a specific process, terminal, and user
and consists of the values described in the previous section.
It can be monitored for being above or below specific limits which are based
on the system's historical data collected by Panoptis.
- The monitored entity
A monitored entity can be one of the following:
- U: a user,
- T: a terminal,
- P: a process,
- (U, P): a process executed by a specific user, and
- (U, T): a user working on a specific terminal.
An abnormal behaviour which could signify a security breach can be
associated with any of the above entities.
- a user may run programs at an unusual time (K0 £ Tl(U) £ K1),
- a process may consume an inordinate amount of CPU time (Tt(P) ³ K),
- a terminal may be exhibit abnormal input/output behaviour
(e.g. Ct(T) ³ K),
- a user may execute an uncommon command, or
- a user may work from an unusual terminal.
- The monitoring time interval
Time intervals are defined by the system administrator.
Typical intervals that provide useful data are:
- A fixed period
As described in section 4,
we found that storing data for twenty minute intervals, a day, and a week
captures enough information about the system behaviour to cover a
large number of possible security breach attempts.
The twenty minute interval is useful for quickly detecting
a large number of invocations of an important program such the password
changing command, while the day and week databases can be run with a larger
set of checks to detect finer changes in the system's behaviour indicating
attempted security breaches.
- A specific period
Panoptis can store separate data for every day and every hour (e.g. Mon, Tue, ... and
1200h, 1300h, ...) to capture behaviour that is occurring in non-standard
days or times.
An example of a security breach that can be detected using this method is
the execution of an application used by personnel working nine to five
late at night or over the weekend.
We found it more convenient to group the specific period
time interval databases into groups of larger granularity such as
- Continuous monitoring
Finally, Panoptis can be run in a mode whereby the accounting log is continuously
monitored and all records that are appended to it are checked against the
This execution mode provides immediate notification of possible security
A system administrator can run Panoptis in this mode with its output
redirected to a hardcopy terminal to create a log that can not be
erased even when the security of the system is compromised.
3 The Panoptis Domain-specific Language
Panoptis consists of a single program that reads accounting records
and updates profile databases optionally reporting cases that fall outside
the existing profiles.
Its arguments are a DSL-based configuration file that directs the program
operation, the database to update, the interval to operate upon,
and an optional list of process accounting files (the system accounting file
/var/adm/pacct is the default record source).
# Configuration file for host pooh
# $Id: paper.tex 1.6 2000/05/30 12:26:58 dds Exp dds $
HZ = 100 # "Floating point" value divisor
bigend = FALSE # Set to TRUE for big endian (e.g. Sun), FALSE for
# little endian (e.g. VAX, Intel x86)
map = TRUE # Set to TRUE to map uid/tty numbers to names
EPSILON = 0.001 # New maxima difference threshold
report = TRUE # Set to TRUE to report new/updated entries
unlink = FALSE # Set to TRUE to start fresh
# Reporting procedure
output = '| /usr/bin/tee /dev/console | /bin/mail root'
# Databases and parameters to check
dbcheck(tty, minbmin, maxbmin, maxio, maxcount) # Terminals
dbcheck(comm, ALL) # Commands
dbcheck(uid, ALL) # Users
dbcheck(uidtty, maxcount) # Users on a terminal
dbcheck(uidcomm, minbmin, maxbmin, maxutime, # Users of a command
maxstime, maxmem, maxrw, maxcount, maxasu)
# Map users and terminals into groups
usermap(caduser, john, marry, jill)
usermap(admin, root, bin, uucp, mail, news)
termmap(room202, tty31, tty32, tty33, tty34, tty35)
termmap(ptys, ttyp01, ttyp02, ttyp03, ttyp04, ttyp05, ttyp06)
Sample configuration file.
Panoptis is configured by a domain-specific language.
The language supports bindings over the following distinct databases:
Users logged in on a specific terminal.
Users executing a specific command.
The basename used for storing each one of the above databases is specified
as a parameter in the panoptis invocation.
As a result, different databases can be used to store process accounting
history for different hosts, time intervals, or monitoring configurations.
For every process accounting record the following attributes can
Signal exit status.
Maximum CPU hog factor (CPU time over elapsed time).
Maximum memory usage.
Maximum average disk block input/output.
Maximum system time.
Minimum daily start time (start time whithin the 24 hour interval).
Maximum user time.
Maximum daily start time.
Maximum number of times a given record has appeared in the database.
Maximum disk block input/output.
Core dump flag.
Maximum average character input/output.
Maximum clock time.
Maximum average memory usage.
Maximum character input/output.
Panoptis will report process accounting records whose
attributes fall above (below) the values already recorded in a given
The panoptis monitoring options are also set in the DSL configuration file.
The file contains the following elements:
Specific variables can be assigned values to control the
- Monitoring specifications
These are given using the relation
dbcheck(database, attribute ...)
and specify that the given attributes should be monitored in
a given database.
The special attribute ALL can be used to specify that
all attributes shall be monitored.
- User maps
These are given using the relation
usermap(abstract user, username ...)
and specify that all concrete users specified will be mapped to
the given abstract user.
This relation can be used to group users into specific monitoring
groups (e.g. power users, administrators, typists).
- Terminal maps
These are given using the relation
termmap(abstract terminal, terminal name ...)
and specify that all concrete terminals specified will be mapped to
the given abstract terminal.
This relation can be used to group terminals into specific monitoring
groups (e.g. network terminals, printers, data entry, etc.).
the following variables can be specified in a configuration file:
Set to TRUE to report new/updated entries.
Set to TRUE to report time the command was started.
Set to TRUE to clear existing database entries.
Set to TRUE to map uid/tty numbers to names based on the mapping
of the system where panoptis is run.
The divisor used by the system to store "floating point" values.
Maximum difference threshold.
When this threshold is exceeded panoptis will report the specific
Set to specify the system source of the accounting records.
The following values are currently supported:
- ['SVR3'] SunOS 4.X and XENIX,
- ['Linux'] e.g. Linux 2.2,
- ['SVR4'] POSIX, XOPEN, e.g. SunOS 5.6,
- ['fBSD'] Free BSD e.g. Free BSD 3.4.
Set to TRUE for big endian (e.g. Sun), FALSE for little endian (e.g. VAX, x86)
Set to specify how panoptis results will be output.
The Perl syntax used for opening files can be used.
A sample configuration file is reproduced in Figure 2.
Two variables (HZ and bigend) define the machine's hardware
These - in conjunction with the option map which specifies
whether the local system user and terminal names should be used for reporting
- made it possible for us to run Panoptis on our system cross-checking the accounting
files of other systems.
A possible setup based on this capability could be a centralised security
server monitoring a large number of remote systems.
The report and unlink settings are used for creating initial
Setting unlink will create a fresh set of profile data.
In that case report could be disabled while historical data
is collected and stored in the database.
The output parameter specifies the filename or process to receive
In this example all reports are printed on the system console and a
copy is mailed to the system administrator account.
The next section of the configuration file specifies for each
of the databases outlined in section 2 the parameters
- as described in section 1.2 - to be checked.
These specifications are used to customise the profile databases for
storing only relevant profile data.
In the example we provide terminals (tty) are monitored for use
normal hours in order to detect physical or network security breaches
and the number of characters transfered in order to detect attempts to
transfer data outside the system.
Commands (comm) and users (uid) have all their parameters
monitored as these should
quickly settle to an established pattern minimising false alarms.
A subsequent divergence of any of the parameters is likely to be interesting.
The database containing the users of a specific terminal is only
monitored for the number of commands run from that terminal in order
to catch intruders.
Finally, the database containing data for every command a user
executes (uidcomm) is monitored for the time that process is run, its
use of CPU time, memory, and disk I/O, the number
of times it was executed, and whether it was executed with
Divergence of these parameters can pinpoint Trojan horses, viruses,
encryption crackers, and data browsers.
The last section of the configuration file contains the
grouping tuples used to specify logical sets of terminals and users.
In our example the users of the CAD application form one group
(caduser) and the administrative accounts another (admin).
All other system users are stored and checked as individuals.
Records in the databases that are keyed by a user
(uid, uidtty, uidcomm) will be reflect the behaviour of
the whole group instead of a specific user.
Similarly, some terminals that are shared in one room are checked
as one group.
Pseudo-terminals (ptys) which are often
used for network connections are also grouped together as they are
assigned to incoming connections in a random way.
# Panoptis crontab file for host pooh
# The format of this file is:
# Hour Minute Day-of-month Month Day-of-week Command
* 5,25,45 * * * panoptis pooh-quick.cfg pooh.20min 20m
8-18 05 * * * panoptis pooh-hour.cfg pooh.workhour 1h
19-7 05 * * * panoptis pooh-hour.cfg pooh.late 1h
4 50 * * 1-5 panoptis pooh-day.cfg pooh.workday 24h
4 50 * * 6,0 panoptis pooh-day.cfg pooh.weekend 24h
2 20 * * 0 panoptis pooh-full.cfg pooh.weekly 7d \
Sample scheduling file.
Panoptis is typically installed as a program to be executed by the system's
command scheduler crontab.
Additionally, Panoptis can be run at system startup as a background task to
continuously monitor the accounting files.
A sample scheduling file for Panoptis that we used on our system is
reproduced in Figure 3.
In this example a few quick checks are run every twenty minutes (on the
fifth, 25th, and 45th minute of the hour) against
the profiles stored in the pooh.20min database.
Every hour a more complete check is run.
Its profiles are split into two databases, one stores the working
hour (8am to 6pm) profiles (pooh.workhour) and one the
night-hour (7pm to 7am) profiles (pooh.late).
Daily checks are run every night at 4:50am.
Again, the profile databases are split between workdays and weekends.
Finally, the complete set of accounting files is checked using a full
configuration every Sunday at 2:20am.
A monitoring system can fail in two different ways:
- Type I error
- Failing to report an important event (since, false
- Type II error
- Reporting a large number of unimportant events letting
important ones passing unnoticed (false positive, noise).
In addition, a security monitoring system can fail either because
an intruder uses an attack mode not anticipated or covered by its
design (a system limitation),
or because the intruder intentionally tries to get around it
(a system weakness).
Panoptis's heuristic nature will result in both silence and noise.
Noise is gradually eliminated as more and more cases are added to
the profile data.
Silence can result either from security breaches that are outside
the system's domain, or from an intruder's deliberate exploitation
of the system's weaknesses.
As the system is based on process accounting records, a number
of other important information that could lead to the detection
of security problems is not examined.
Examples of other entities that could be monitored and included in
the profile data include system calls made by a process, network
connections, and patterns of file access.
Monitoring these entities would require operating system kernel
we decided against them in order to keep the system portable and
easy to install.
An intruder knowing Panoptis's architecture and configuration
could also foil the system by:
- generating legitimate ``noise'' in order to hide a culprit process,
- an attack based on a non-terminating process (such as system daemons)
which are not normally logged,
- using an interpreter such as Perl [WS90] to access system
resources without invoking external processes,
- changing the name of the offending command to a benign name,
- gradually and legitimately changing the usage profile of an entity
avoiding the suspicion caused by a sudden change,
- filling the disk where administrative data is kept in order to
disable process accounting, or
- exploiting Panoptis's relatively large time window between the
occurrence of a suspicious event and its detection.
On the plus side, Panoptis's open ended nature can result in the detection
of security problems unanticipated during its design and deployment.
Some of the attacks described can be defended by careful installation
Countermeasures include keeping the accounting records in a filesystem
that has no public writable directories (by default process accounting
records and the temporary file directory reside on the same filesystem), and
the protection of the configuration file and the reports from unauthorised
reading to make the planning of an undetected attack difficult.
We have run Panoptis on the accounting records of our site,
an academic site X-terminal server, a dialup/WWW server and
a C/database development machine.
After some time of tuning and profile collection Panoptis's reports
are reduced to a steady trickle reflecting the users change
of interests or mode of work and the introduction of new programs
on the system.
Although Panoptis has not yet caught any security violations
the results we have so far obtained are encouraging.
In some cases Panoptis has helped us identify sources of system
performance degradation or potential security problems.
Furthermore, in a Gedankenexperiment we performed based on five
security breaches described in [BKS90] we found that four
of them could have been caught by Panoptis.
5 Related Work
In an early study on real-time intrusion detection [And80],
it was suggested that an intruder could be detectedby monitoring certain
system-wide parameters (i.e. CPU use, memory use, disk activity,
keystroke dynamics, etc.), and compare them with what had been historically
established as normal or expected for that facility.
It was, also, suggested to profile the normal behavior of programs,
files, and other objects.
This is often called a statistical anomaly detection approach.
Until this study, the relevant work focused on developing procedures
and algorithms for automating the offline security analysis of audit trails.
On the basis of the above, SRI scientists developed IDES
(Intrusion Detection Expert System) [L+92] and
Next-generation IDES [A+95].
IDES is a system that continuously monitors user behavior and
detects suspicious behavior as it occurs.
IDES takes the approach that intrusions can be detected by
flagging departures from historically established norms of behavior for
To support the idea, various intrusion detection measures are profiled
for each user and statistical processing of them is carried out by the
Intruders often use known paths to attack a system
(e.g. programmed password attacks,
access to privileged files,
exploitation of known vulnerabilities, etc.).
With a model-based reasoning, specific models of defending to prescribed
attacks can be developed [GL91].
Other approaches are either defining acceptable, as opposed to intrusive,
behavior [Kar87], or - on earlier stages of technology - are based
on the introduction of trap doors for intruders (i.e. ``bogus'' user accounts
with ``magic'' passwords, etc.) [Lin75].
None of them is sufficient alone, since it addresses a specific type of threats.
Several studies have demonstrated that the use of specialized (security-focused)
audit trails is needed for security purposes.
In addition to the raw audit data itself, additional data could prove to be
useful or necessary for intrusion detection:
external facts (e.g. changes in user job description),
supporting facts (e.g. file attributes), and
profiles of expected behavior (e.g. time schedules).
It seems to be a fact, that effective intrusion detection will not come into
widespread use until
good security auditing mechanisms are in place [Lun93].
The appropriate level of auditing is really important.
It has been suggested [Kuh86,Pic87] that the audit should be performed
at the lowest possible level (e.g. monitoring system service calls),
because in this case to circumvent auditing is harder.
The more recent studies on intrusion detection focus more on the topology
of the modern information systems environment.
As a result, network intrusion detection systems have been developed
The cornerstone of these systems is also a domain-specific language
concise specification of network packet contents under normal/expected
and/or attack conditions.
These approaches claim to have easy-to-develop intrusion specifications,
to carry out high-speed and large-volume monitoring,
to be robust and extensible,
and to use a comprehensive evaluation framework.
6 Conclusions and Further Work
The use of a domain-specific language can make
process accounting data ammenable to intrusion detection.
Panoptis first expands the accounting data space by deriving new
the existing records and scattering the results into the three dimensions
of value, monitored entity, and time interval.
It then analyses the data by comparing it against the profiles of the
past it has stored on a database and reports any significant changes.
The numerous parameters that affect Panoptis's performance can be easily
tuned to match the characteristics of the system being supervised
forming heuristic rules.
This approach is flexible and provides useful results while
limiting extraneous noise.
After using Panoptis for some time we found out that the data evaluated
can be expanded in a number of ways by increasing the number of
derived properties (e.g. adding running averages).
In addition, report triggering can be made more selective by introducing
thresholds, counters, and combined conditions.
This additional complexity will require the provision of a more sophisticated
configuration system, probably a rule-based language.
We are currently investigating the requirement specifications for such a
We are also looking for ways to automate the administration of Panoptis's
configuration based on templates suitable for different types of systems
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1 University of the Aegean,
Department of Information and Communication Systems, Karlovasi, Greece
2 Athens University of Economics and Business,
Department of Informatics, Athens, Greece
Argos-Panoptis - the one who can see everything - is a Greek mythology
canine creature whose body is covered with eyes.
Even when Panoptis is sleeping half of its eyes remain open.
For this it was given the task of guarding Io one of Zeus' lovers.