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Application Layer Intrusion Detection

Today’s applications are responsible for securely performing critical operations for individuals and businesses around the world. From transferring money, to managing health records, web enabled applications handle immense amounts of sensitive data each day. Despite the critical role they play, the security defenses within these applications are seriously lacking. The attackers are organized, motivated, and backed by a network of resources and talent. If our applications have any hope of standing up to such formidable opponents, then we need to move beyond just attempting to design our applications securely. We need to implement robust attack detection within the application to identify malicious users before they are successful in their attack. Just like in the real world, we would prefer to detect and prevent an attack instead of just responding after a compromise has occurred.

How do we bridge the technology gap to implement appropriate security controls in our critical applications? The first step is to realize that in order to detect and respond to malicious activity at the application layer we need to be able to monitor and understand a user’s actions within the application. Security approaches of previous years are not sufficient. A firewall provides no protection; its purpose is to allow users to access the application. Nor does a network based IDS system since it will have no insight to our application specific traffic. Antivirus is also out of the question since this is a signature based approach that knows nothing of custom web application vulnerabilities.

We need to move into the application layer to understand our attackers. One potential solution is a web application firewall (WAF). A WAF is able to detect generic application attacks such as basic SQL injection attacks or common actions of a known attack sequence. While some detection is better than none, a generic product could never fully understand the intricacies of each custom web application. This approach is just not sufficient to properly protect critical applications that process sensitive financial data or personal user information. Imagine trying to design an effective building alarm system without any knowledge of how the building is designed or even where the doors and windows are located.

The solution is to design and integrate a detection and response system into the application itself. Within the application we have a full understanding of the user initiating an action, the target of that action and whether that action should be allowed for that user. Inside the application our protection system can identify advanced attacks that are attempting to exploit specific features of our application. Within the application we can easily identify attempts to circumvent security controls or use the application in an unintended manner. After we have determined that a particular user has malicious intent and is attempting to identify weaknesses in our system, we can immediately respond and block the user from future access to the application, or take whatever other action is appropriate. Once locked out, such users can no longer login and are limited to attacking the perimeter of an application, which often contains limited functionality and is typically well secured. Alternatively, some organizations may wish to forego an automated lockout response and instead generate an attack alert and allow their security-monitoring center to perform an immediate investigation and decide upon the appropriate response.

The rigor of response is a decision for each organization in relation to their tolerance for risk and specific needs for an application. However, it is clear that this level of detection capability is a must for any organization wishing to prevent skilled and persistent attackers from compromising their critical applications.

OWASP AppSensor

OWASP is committed to the protection of applications through application attack detection and automated response. The OWASP AppSensor project has been established in response to the clear need for guidance and knowledge in this area.

AppSensor provides the following:

  • Recommendations for what application actions should be detected as malicious along with suggested responses
  • Guidance on designing and implementing an attack detection and response system within an application
  • A Java reference implementation that you can integrate into your application as the basis for your Application Layer Intrusion Detection and Response mechanism

Find out more at: The OWASP AppSensor Project