Last week I attended VizSec 2008 and RAID 2008. I'd like to share a few thoughts about each event.
I applaud the conference organizers for scheduling these conferences in the same city, back-to-back. That decision undoubtedly improved attendance and helped justify my trip. Thank you to John Goodall for inviting me to join the VizSec program committee.
I enjoyed the VizSec keynote by Treemap inventor Ben Shneiderman. I liked attending a non-security talk that had security implications. Sometimes I focus so strictly on security issues that I miss the wider computing field and opportunities to see what non-security peers are developing.
I must admit that I did not pay as much attention to the series of speakers that followed Prof Shneiderman as I would have liked. Taking advantage of the site's wireless network, I was connected to work the entire day doing incident handling. I did manage to speak with Raffy Marty during lunch, which was (as always) enlightening.
One theme I noticed at VizSec was the limitation of tools and techniques to handle large data sets. Some people attributed this to the Prefuse visualization toolkit used by many tools. Several attendees said they turn to visualization approaches because their manual analysis methods fail for large data sets. They don't need visualization tools which also croak when analyzing more than several hundred thousand records.
I also noticed that many visualization work for security tends to focus on IP addresses and ports. That is nice if you are limited to analyzing NetFlow records or other session data, but most of the excitement these days exists as log files, URLs, or layer 7 content. Perhaps just when the researchers have figured out a great way to show who is talking to who, it won't matter much anymore. Clients will all be talking to the cloud, and the action will be within the cloud -- beyond the inspection of most clients.
One presentation which I really liked was Improving Attack Graph Visualization through Data Reduction and Attack Grouping (.pdf) by John Homer, Xinming Ou, Ashok Varikuti and Miles McQueen. I thought their paper addressed a really practical problem, namely reducing the number of attack paths to those most likely (and logically) used by an intruder. I believe the speaker was unnecessarily criticized by several participants. I could see this approach being used in operational networks to assist security staff make defensive and detective decisions.
At the end of the day I participated in a poster session by virtue of being a co-author of Towards Zero-Day Attack Detection through Intelligent Icon Visualization of MDL Model Proximity with Scott Evans, Stephen Markham, Jeremy Impson and Eric Steinbrecher. Scott and Stephen work at GE Research, and I plan to collaborate with them for our internal security analysis.
Following VizSec I attended two days of RAID, or the 11th Recent Advanced in Intrusion Detection conference. Five years ago I participated in the 6th RAID conference and posted my thoughts. In that post I noted comments by Richard Steinnon, months after his 2003 comments that IDS was "dead":
"Gateways and firewalls are finally plugging the holes... we are winning the arms race with hackers... the IDS is at the end of life."
I found those comments funny on their own, and in light of the recent story Intrusion-prevention systems still not used full throttle: survey:
Network-based intrusion-prevention systems are in-line devices intended to detect and block a wide variety of attacks, but the equipment still is often used more like an intrusion-detection system to passively monitor traffic, new research shows...
[Richard] Stiennon -- who created some controversy five years ago while a Gartner ananlyst when he declared IDSs "dead” -- says this Infonetics survey gives him fuel to fan the flames of criticism once again.
“IDS should be dead because it’s still a failed technology,” Stiennon says, expressing the view that simply logging alerts about attacks is almost always a pointless exercise. “IPS equipment should be doing more to block attacks.”
The fundamental problem was, is, and will continue to be, the following:
If you can detect an attack with 100% accuracy, of course you should try to prevent it. If you can't, what else is left? Detection.
I continue to consider so-called "intrusion detection systems" to really be attack indication systems. It's important to try to prevent what you can, but to also have a system to let you know when something bad might be happening. This subject is worthy of a whole chapter in a new book, so I'll have to wait to write that argument.
Overall, I felt that a lot of the RAID talks were divorced from operational reality. Several attendees addressed this subject with questions. Too many researchers appear to be working on subjects that would never see the light of day in real networks.