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  • Diomidis Spinellis and Dimitris Gritzalis. Panoptis: Intrusion detection using a domain-specific language. Journal of Computer Security, 10:159–176, 2002. Green Open Access

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Diomidis Spinellis Publications

Panoptis: Intrusion Detection using a Domain-specific Language

Diomidis Spinellis
Athens University of Economics and Business
Department of Management Science and Technology
Athens, Greece

Dimitris Gritzalis
Athens University of Economics and Business, Department of Informatics
Athens, Greece


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. Our application, 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 database tables 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. We demonstrate the operation of Panoptis by a case study of a real attack and subsequent system compromise that occured on a system under our administrative control.


Domain-specific languages, security monitoring, intrusion detection, Unix process accounting.

1  Introduction

Panoptis1 is an anomaly 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 administrators. The voluminous nature of the process accounting records prohibits manual inspection; Panoptis keeps detailed database tables 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. Many intrusion detection systems rely on a specification language for the detection, corelation, or reporting of incidents (see section 7). The unique aspect of Panoptis is the narrow domain it covers; in the intrusion detection paradigm that we advocate, a number of small focused systems like Panoptis, each with its own domain-specific language, are combined to form an intrusion detection confederation.

Panoptis detects and reports all entities that execute outside the defined profile envelopes and automatically updates the database tables 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 [7]. An example of Panoptis's output can be seen in Figure 5.

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 Panoptis. 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 transfers. 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 [25] 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 [13], used for program lexical analysis and parsing, HTML [6], 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 [5,29].

DSLs are, by definition, special purpose languages. Any system architecture encompassing one or more DSLs is typically structured as a confederation of modules; some are implemented in one of the DSLs and the rest are implemented using a general purpose programming language. 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 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 involving code expressed in a general purpose language.

1.2  Unix Process Accounting Records

Most modern versions of Unix provide the capability of process accounting [18]. 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:

Based on the above data the following quantities can be derived for every terminated process:

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 purposes.

2  Anomaly Detection Data Space

Panoptis monitors the system processes in three independent dimensions:

  1. 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.

  2. The monitored entity A monitored entity can be one of the following:

    An abnormal behaviour which could signify a security breach can be associated with any of the above entities. For example,

  3. The monitoring time interval Time intervals are defined by the system administrator. Typical intervals that provide useful data are:

    A fixed period
    We found (see Section 6 for details) 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 as the password changing command, while the day and week database tables 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 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 tables into groups of larger granularity such as workdays/weekend.

    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 specified tables. This execution mode provides immediate notification of possible security problems. 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.

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.

3  The Panoptis Domain-specific Language

Panoptis consists of a single program that reads accounting records and updates profile tables, 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: poo.dsl 1.6 2000/05/30 12:26:58 dds Exp $
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 = 150           # 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)

Figure 1: Sample configuration file.

Panoptis is configured by a domain-specific language. The language supports bindings over the following distinct database tables:

Users logged in on a specific terminal.
Users executing a specific command.

The basename used for storing each one of the above tables is specified as a parameter in the Panoptis invocation. As a result, different tables 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 be checked:

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.
Superuser status.
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.
Fork status.
Maximum clock time.
Maximum average memory usage.
Maximum character input/output.

Panoptis will report process accounting records whose attributes fall above (or below) the values already recorded in a given database.

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 Panoptis behaviour.
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.).

In addition, the following variables can be specified in a configuration file:

Boolean variable. Set to TRUE to report new/updated entries.
Boolean variable. Set to TRUE to report time the command was started.
Boolean variable. Set to TRUE to clear existing database entries.
Boolean variable. Set to TRUE to map uid/tty numbers to names based on the mapping of the system where Panoptis is run.
Numeric variable. The divisor used by the system to store ``floating point'' values.
Numeric variable. Maximum difference threshold expressed as a percentage difference of a new value against the previous one. When this threshold is exceeded, Panoptis will report the specific command.
String variable. 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.

Boolean variable. Set to TRUE for big endian (e.g. Sun), FALSE for little endian (e.g. VAX, x86) accounting records.
String variable. 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 1. Two variables (HZ and bigend) define the machine's hardware characteristics. 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 profiles. 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 Panoptis's output. 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 tables outlined in section 2 the parameters - as described in section 1.2 - to be checked. These specifications are used to customise the profile tables for storing only relevant profile data. In the example we provide we monitor terminals (tty) used outside the normal hours to detect physical or network security breaches, and the number of characters transfered 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 superuser privileges. Divergence of these parameters can pinpoint Trojan horses, viruses, encryption crackers, operation of distributed denial of service attack tools, and data browsers [8,9].

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 form another (admin). All other system users are stored and checked as individuals. After a process accounting entry is decoded, terminal and user names that belong to a given group are replaced by the name of that group. As a result, records in tables that have a user name as their key (uid, uidtty, uidcomm) will reflect the behaviour of the whole group instead of a specific user. Similarly, this method allows terminals that are shared in one room to be checked as a single group. Pseudo-terminals (ptys) - 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 \
                           /usr/adm/pacct? /usr/adm/pacct

Figure 2: Sample scheduling file.

4  Operation

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 2. 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 tables; 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 4:50 a.m. Again, the profile tables are split between workdays and weekends. Finally, the complete set of accounting files is checked using a full configuration every Sunday at 2:20 a.m.

Every time Panoptis is run, the sequence outlined in Figure 3 is executed. As one can see, Panoptis gradully ``learns'' the profiles of various commands, users, and terminals and can therefore spot irregularities that may indicate an intrusion.

read and parse the the domain-specific language configuration
while there are records in the specified accounting file
      read and decode an accounting record
      synthesise the derived quantities
      substitute the name of entities belonging to a group with the group name
      for every database table specified
          look for an database entry matching the key of the record retrieved
          if a matching entry is found
              compare it with the entry read
              if the accounting record value exceeds the amount stored in the database
                  produce a new maximum value alert and update the database
          else (if no matching entry is found)
              produce a new value alert and update the database

Figure 3: Panoptis operation

An important aspect of the configuration file concerns the parameters that are set to be checked, and the corresponding mappings. Both specifications are heuristic in nature; a set of right parameters will rapidly identify irregular patterns signifying an intrusion without letting legitimate commands mask pottential security breaches. User mappings can group together users with similar behaviour or tasks. Examples of potential user groups include ``sales,'' ``developers,'' ``administrators,'' and ``system programmers.'' Similar groups can also be defined for terminals, based on the premise that different physical locations are used for different purposes: the factory floor terminals run a different set of programs than those in the floor occupied by administrative personnel.

The parameters checked for different entities are also important. In the following paragraphs we outline some pertinent factors for choosing the parameters to specify on a given monitored entity.

maxhog, maxmem, maxavrw, maxstime, maxutime
The maximum CPU hog factor, the maximum memory usage, the maximum average disk block input/output, and the maximum user and system times are relevant to all monitored entities. Since, however, the same command can be used differently by different users, it is more appropriate to monitor these factors on a user by command (uidcomm) basis.

The signal exit status should be monitored for all commands. Front-end commands (eg client-server applications) will not typically respond to signals. Signal termination of such commands may indicate exploitations of race conditions or buffer overflows.

The minimum and maxinum daily start times are mostly important for users and terminals which typically have quite distinct patterns of use within the day. Some commands are also scheduled to run at specific times; monitoring these factors against commands can catch abnormal uses.

Given the security model of Unix systems, the superuser status of a command should be closely monitored for all entity combinations. Most cases where a new command, user, or terminal acquire superuser status should be carefuly investigated.
The maximum number of times accounting records appear for a given entity can pinpoint some denial of service-type attacks, typically without generating extraneous noise. It should therefore be monitored for all entities.

The core dump flag should be monitored for all commands and terminals. Failed attempts to exploit a buffer overflow often result in core dumps.

maxavio, maxio
The maximum (average) character input/output should be monitored for terminals since it can be used to detect attempts to transfer data in or out of the system.

Monitoring the fork status on commands can detect trojan horses since they often behave differently in this aspect than the original command.

Finally, the maximum clock time should be monitored for commands executed by specific users. These tend to have distinct profiles of usage; variations should trigger an alarm.

Figure 4: Number of anomalies over the weekly period leading to the intrusion.

5  Incident Detection

On Saturday, January 13th, 2001, a system under our administrative control was compromised. The system was directly connected to the Internet and running the FreeBSD 3.0-RELEASE version of Unix. It is used as an Internet gateway providing email, web, FTP, and DNS services. It hosts only three user accounts (mostly used for system administration), and is accessed using ssh. One month before the incident, we performed a port scan on it using the Nessus tool. The single vulnerability that Nessus detected (a domain-name service daemon vulnerability) was fixed by installing an updated version of named. Figure 4 depicts the number of anomalies detected by Panoptis over the weekly period leading to the intrusion. In order to demonstrate how a Panoptis system is trained, we deleted all table contents prior to January 9th. Each new Panoptis invocation starts at 02:00 in the morning after the daily cron jobs are run. The number of anomalies shown for the 9th mostly represent the working-hour workload of the host. The rise on the 10th represents the additional maintenance jobs executed overnight by cron (web and email accounting, updates, search engine indexing, statistics, backup, security checks). After the database tables have been primed the number of detected anomalies fall to 27 (on the 11th) and 18 (on the 12th). In normal operation, the number of anomalies detected by Panoptis fall further under stable system operation (as can be seen on January 14th). In our case, on January 13th a cracker attacked our system from an ISP dial-in connection. The rise of anomalies detected in a 24 hour period (358 against of the previous ``training'' maximum of 169) should alert any competent system administrator. The 349 anomalies found by Panoptis on the 15th represent system administration actions performed to investigate the cracker's activity and mitigate the compromise. Figure 5 contains some representative entries slightly edited to remove extraneous information and substitute meaningful names for numeric identifiers (Panoptis can perform this substitution automatically, but only when running directly on the target system; for techinical reasons this post-mortem analysis could not be performed on the compromised system.) The commands are typical of those run by an intruder. The intruder(s) probably used a buffer overflow in the mail system POP server to gain system access. After gaining access, they checked for other users on the system (w), the files in various directories (ls) and the binary contents on some files (objdump), and proceeded to compile and install a modified version of a setuid program (gcc, chown, chmod).

Database Users*Commands, key [root/popper]: New entry.
Command: popper  Terminal: ttyp1  User: root
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:27:53 to: 2001-01-13 01:28:09 (16.2 seconds)
spending 0.12 seconds in kernel space and 0.04 seconds in user space
(0.16 total) and using the CPU for 1% of the time.
Character I/O: 4 characters (average I/O: 24.00 characters / CPU second)
Disk I/O: 0 K (average I/O: 0.00 K / CPU second)
Memory accounted: 2.58 K (average size: 8.06 K)
Database Users*Commands, key [dds/popper]: New entry.
Command: popper  Terminal: ttyp1  User: dds
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:28:20 to: 2001-01-13 01:28:34 (14.47 seconds)
Database Commands, key [w]: New entry.
Command: w  Terminal: ttyp0  User: dds
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:29:29 to: 2001-01-13 01:29:29 (0.32 seconds)
Database Users*Commands, key [dds/w]: New entry.
Command: w  Terminal: ttyp0  User: dds
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:29:29 to: 2001-01-13 01:29:29 (0.32 seconds)
Database Users*Commands, key [dds/ls]: New entry.
Command: ls  Terminal: ttyp0  User: dds
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:29:32 to: 2001-01-13 01:29:32 (0.36 seconds)
Database Users*Commands, key [root/awk]:
	New maximum average character input/output (204.8 / 64; 220%)
Command: awk  Terminal: ttyp1  User: root
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:32:13 to: 2001-01-13 01:32:13 (0.41 seconds)
Database Users*Commands, key [dds/uname]: New entry.
Command: uname  Terminal: ttyp0  User: dds
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:33:14 to: 2001-01-13 01:33:14 (0.3 seconds)
Database Commands, key [objdump]: New entry.
Command: objdump  Terminal: ttyp0  User: dds
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:39:27 to: 2001-01-13 01:39:28 (1.26 seconds)
spending 0.09 seconds in kernel space and 0.02 seconds in user space
Database Commands, key [fitso]: New entry.
Command: fitso  Terminal: ttyp0  User: dds
Executed from: 2001-01-13 01:46:14 to: 2001-01-13 01:46:14 (0.06 seconds)
Database Users*Commands, key [root/chown]: New entry.
Command: chown  Terminal: ttyp1  User: root
Executed from: 2001-01-13 02:00:04 to: 2001-01-13 02:00:04 (0.06 seconds)
Database Commands, key [gcc]: New maximum daily start time (419 / 145; 189%)
Command: gcc  Terminal: ttyp1  User: root

Figure 5: The Panoptis report from the compromised system.

6  Evaluation

A monitoring system can fail in two different ways:

Type I error
Failing to report an important event (false negative, silence).
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 modifications [4]; 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:

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 and configuration. Countermeasures include keeping the accounting records in a filesystem that has no publically writable directories (by default process accounting records and the temporary file directory residing 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 up to now caught only a single security violation, 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 Gedankenexperiment2 we performed based on five security breaches described in [3], we found that four of them could have been caught by Panoptis.

An important aspect of an intrusion detection system is its impact on the systems it monitors. Panoptis monitors the system at a rather coarse level utilising existing process accounting data that is by default measured by Unix kernels. On a 366MHz Pentium II machine, Panoptis, running the specification that was used to detect the incident described in section 5, will process 320 process accounting records per second (3ms / record). The time taken to analyse a record is of the same order of magnitude as that needed by the kernel to fork and execute a process. Thus continous monitoring is feasible on moderately loaded systems, or on systems that execute mostly long-running processes. A pathological case involves the execution of pure shell-scripts relying on thousands of short process executions (eval, expr, test, etc). In such an environment, Panoptis may account for up to 50% of the system's load. In typical cases, however, Panoptis adds negligible overhead to the system's operation.

7  Related Work

In an early study on real-time intrusion detection [2], it was suggested that an intruder could be detected by 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) [22] and Next-generation IDES [1]. 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 individual users. To support the idea, various intrusion detection measures are profiled for each user and statistical processing of them is carried out by the monitoring facility.

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 prescribed attacks can be developed [11]. Other approaches are either defining acceptable, as opposed to intrusive, behavior [15], 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.) [19]. 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 [21].

The appropriate level of auditing is really important. It has been suggested [17,24] 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 [27,30]. The cornerstone of these systems is also a domain-specific language that enables 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.

Over the last years, the increasing number of security attacks and the corresponding detection and reporting frameworks and tools have resulted in the design and adoption of a number of languages for specifying systems and communicating information. Eckmann et al. [10] distinguish six classes of relevant languages: event, response, reporting, correlation, exploit, and detection languages. The DSL used by Panoptis can be classified as a detection language. Other detection languages include ASAX [12], the language used in the Bro system [23], P-BEST [20], N-code [26], STATL [10], and specification languages [16,28]. Our approach is not general-purpose as some of the above languages, but targets a specific area (intrusion detection using process accounting records) with a narrow but focused, we hope, language that can efficiently describe how accounting records shall be processed to recognise anomalies.

8  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 quantities from 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. Some examples include the addition of running averages, and the mapping of pseudo-terminals to IP addresses. In addition, report triggering can be made more selective by introducing thresholds, counters, and combined conditions. This new complexity will require enhancing the system's DSL. Some additions we are investigating are the treatment of the database tables as first class variables, the integration of the time dimension, the provision of predicate logic rules, and support for installable components within the common intrusion detection framework [14]. Ultimately, we would like to investigate how a number of specialised intrusion detection modules like Panoptis, each based on a narrow domain-specific language, can be combined into a confederated intrusion detection system.


The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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1 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.

2 Gedankenexperiment is a technical term used by physicists for an experiment which is only described but not made in reality, as it is not possible or was not possible when someone thought of it for the first time. By imagining the given experiment, one will hopefully reach interesting conclusions (e.g. the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Gedankenexperiment). The term was popularized by Einstein, who relied heavily on Gedankenexperiments both in his derivation of relativity and in his arguments with Bohr about quantum mechanics.