Twenty Years of Network Security Monitoring: From the AFCERT to Corelight
Twenty years ago this month I joined the Air Force Computer Emergency Response Team (AFCERT) at then-Kelly Air Force Base, located in hot but lovely San Antonio, Texas. I was a brand new captain who thought he knew about computers and hacking based on experiences from my teenage years and more recent information operations and traditional intelligence work within the Air Intelligence Agency. I was desperate to join any part of the then-five-year-old Information Warfare Center (AFIWC) because I sensed it was the most exciting unit on “Security Hill.”
I had misjudged my presumed level of “hacking” knowledge, but I was not mistaken about the exciting life of an AFCERT intrusion detector! I quickly learned the tenets of network security monitoring, enabled by the custom software watching and logging network traffic at every Air Force base. I soon heard there were three organizations that intruders knew to be wary of in the late 1990s: the Fort, i.e. the National Security Agency; the Air Force, thanks to our Automated Security Incident Measurement (ASIM) operation; and the University of California, Berkeley, because of a professor named Vern Paxson and his Bro network security monitoring software.
When I wrote my first book in 2003-2004, The Tao of Network Security Monitoring, I enlisted the help of Christopher Jay Manders to write about Bro 0.8. Bro had the reputation of being very powerful but difficult to stand up. In 2007 I decided to try installing Bro myself, thanks to the introduction of the “brolite” scripts shipped with Bro 1.2.1. That made Bro easier to use, but I didn’t do much analysis with it until I attended the 2009 Bro hands-on workshop. There I met Vern, Robin Sommer, Seth Hall, Christian Kreibich, and other Bro users and developers. I was lost most of the class, saved only by my knowledge of standard Unix command line tools like sed, awk, and grep! I was able to integrate Bro traffic analysis and logs into my TCP/IP Weapons School 2.0 class, and subsequent versions, which I taught mainly to Black Hat students. By the time I wrote my last book, The Practice of Network Security Monitoring, in 2013, I was heavily relying on Bro logs to demonstrate many sorts of network activity, thanks to the high-fidelity nature of Bro data.
In July of this year, Seth Hall emailed to ask if I might be interested in keynoting the upcoming Bro users conference in Washington, D.C., on October 10-12. I was in a bad mood due to being unhappy with the job I had at that time, and I told him I was useless as a keynote speaker. I followed up with another message shortly after, explained my depressed mindset, and asked how he liked working at Corelight. That led to interviews with the Corelight team and a job offer. The opportunity to work with people who really understood the need for network security monitoring, and were writing the world’s most powerful software to generate NSM data, was so appealing! Now that I’m on the team, I can share how I view Corelight’s contribution to the security challenges we face.
For me, Corelight solves the problems I encountered all those years ago when I first looked at Bro. The Corelight embodiment of Bro is ready to go when you deploy it. It’s developed and maintained by the people who write the code. Furthermore, Bro is front and center, not buried behind someone else’s logo. Why buy this amazing capability from another company when you can work with those who actually conceptualize, develop, and publish the code?
It’s also not just Bro, but it’s Bro at ridiculous speeds, ingesting and making sense of complex network traffic. We regularly encounter open source Bro users who spend weeks or months struggling to get their open source deployments to run at the speeds they need, typically in the tens or hundreds of Gbps. Corelight’s offering is optimized at the hardware level to deliver the highest performance, and our team works with customers who want to push Bro to the even greater levels.
Finally, working at Corelight gives me the chance to take NSM in many exciting new directions. For years we NSM practitioners have worried about challenges to network-centric approaches, such as encryption, cloud environments, and alert fatigue. At Corelight we are working on answers for all of these, beyond the usual approaches — SSL termination, cloud gateways, and SIEM/SOAR solutions. We will have more to say about this in the future, I’m happy to say!
What challenges do you hope Corelight can solve? Leave a comment or let me know via Twitter to @corelight_inc or @taosecurity.