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Don Burleson Blog 







Oracle Auditing for Risk Management and Regulatory Compliance

Oracle Tips by Burleson Consulting
November 2004


For complete details on Oracle auditing and Oracle forensics, see these recommended books:



This whitepaper is a comprehensive overview of database auditing best practices and methods for the IT manager.  With the introduction of rigorous Federal laws, the IT manager must plan to fully monitor and audit access to mission-critical and confidential information, all while maintaining a complete and reliable auditing framework. 


Managers have realized that the information gleaned from audit trails of database activity can be the company's single largest data resource.  They also recognize that their audit trails provide a temporal 'third dimension' of their information, a valuable time-series view of their production systems that contains all-important behavioral aspects of their data access.  While there are various approaches to auditing critical database platforms, implementing an enterprise class solution that provides a comprehensive auditing and reporting capability is not an easy task.  We'll begin with a summary of the most important concerns of the IT manager and then examine various methods of implementing a successful enterprise auditing solution.


The main points of this whitepaper address the issues of the highest concern for IT management. 

'         Avoiding business risk and meeting the demands of customers and business partners :  While the laws demand a thorough and comprehensive approach to privacy and auditing, the most important reason for protecting your data integrity is your professional reputation.  The standards are high, and it is necessary to have a complete top-down auditing and protection solution to work with other businesses.  Your partners must cover themselves and they are not likely to have the time, money or patience to audit a complicated home-grown solution.  Remember, the driving force is your business need and your customer demands for data integrity and privacy. 


:          Satisfying the auditors :  Implementing best practices including segregation of duties :  When considering the Build vs. Buy approach, it should be carefully considered that systems administrators, database administrators and developers cannot have direct access to the auditing solution because exposures result when they have intimate knowledge of the internals of the audit mechanism. Any auditing solution must have the capability of providing for segregation of duties to ensure that these users can be denied access to the resulting audit trail to ensure the integrity of audit reports generated by the system.


:          Avoiding civil and criminal penalties - Data asset management practices must address business, operational, legal and compliance needs.  Many Federal laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Sarbanes Oxley Act (SOX) and the Gramm Leach Bliley Act (GLBA) change the way that databases are secured and audited and some of these federal regulations impose severe criminal penalties for non-compliance and malfeasance with protected data.  Non-compliance with these regulations can also expose your company to multi-million dollar civil lawsuits from customers if their private information has been improperly disclosed.


:          Choosing the right auditing approach :  Many database vendors (e.g., Microsoft, Oracle) offer product-specific utilities to enable auditing, but these audit and trace tools are generally meant to be used only sporadically for investigative and forensic activity.  Piecemeal solutions to auditing are difficult to scale, generally impose significant performance impact on the systems, and are very difficult to manage.  Approaching auditing and privacy efforts at the application layer leaves direct access to the database unaudited, and results in incomplete coverage and a hodge-podge of in-house and third-party audit logs that are impossible to manage and reconcile. 

These are just a few of the IT managers:  concerns in this brave new world of security, privacy and regulatory compliance.  Your customers and business partners expect you to have a complete privacy auditing solution.  Let' s take a closer look at the issues and see how you can protect yourself from common pitfalls and implement a comprehensive and manageable solution.

Developing a Corporate-wide Auditing Framework

The IT manager must view Auditing as a homogenous system, spanning all applications and database platforms.  This is especially important with the new Federal laws that put the onus of maintaining the security and auditing policy on the custodians of the data, the IT management.  The Federal laws do not specify or require specific technologies or standards to be followed, and it is your responsibility to decide the best possible approach to assure compliance. However, it is precisely the implementation that requires an exercise of due diligence to select a rigorous security policy.


For any large company, manageability, reliability and scalability are the critical success factors of an auditing solution:

:          Performance :  The solution must have a minimal performance impact with low maintenance and upgrade overhead.


:          Manageable :  The SA, DBA and developer staff cannot be involved in the auditing or have any privileged access rights.  The solution must be segregated, unified and platform independent.  The solution must be flexible and easy to extend and maintain as IT database requirements change.  The system should include centralized ability to configure and deploy across numbers of servers, and regardless of database platform.


:          Provide business value :  The solution must be usable by security and auditing personnel as well as line of business owners with a clear and understandable reporting capability.

:          Complete :  The solution must be complete and comprehensive.  Because many applications span database platforms, it should have a unified interface for all databases, regardless of platform.  It must be reliable and have an automated and secure mechanism for long-term archival management.  Successful companies view their privacy and auditing as a system in-itself, not as a strap-on to existing systems.

Ensuring a Complete Enterprise Solution

Creating an auditing architecture from diverse data sources and applications is a huge challenge.  The IT manager must ensure that every important aspect of privacy, security and auditing are covered and they must do so while ensuring that their solution in easy to manage and scalable.  A n effective auditing solution must have these characteristics:


:          Reliability and completeness

:          Real-time notification of critical events

:          Consolidation of audit data streams

:          Reporting value and ease of reporting

:          Long-term retention of audit trails

:          Manageability and scalability


While simple in concept, these requirements are extremely complex and difficult to implement, especially with the huge volumes of data that must be archived.   Because auditing is required by both IT best practices and U.S. Federal laws, IT managers typically adopt products designed specifically for this purpose.

Reliability and Completeness

Many IT shops fail to realize that a haphazard 'sampling' approach to auditing is insufficient. A continuous audit is required and the audit must be archived for long-term access. 


This is not an easy task.  In cases where you must audit the viewing of confidential data you might need to archive a volume of data greater than the size of the whole database, everyday, 365 days a year.  With many shops archiving hundreds of gigabytes of data every day, it becomes critical that all of the archived data be accessible and complete. 


For example, HIPAA requirements clearly state that user accesses to the database be recorded and monitored for possible abuse. Remember, this intent is not only to catch hackers but also to document the accesses to medical databases by authorized end-users.  In today's litigious society, prudent companies capture the 'who', 'where', 'what', 'when' and 'why' for all access to confidential information.  The 'why' aspect is critical because authorized end-users may access confidential information for unsavory purposes.


The data volumes of audit information can be staggering.  Larger shops may capture trillions of bytes of auditing information every week, archive and store this data for several years, and have an automated mechanism to easily extract information about any individual in their database.


A comprehensive solution must also have the ability to audit all possible points of entry to the data.  It must audit access from the operating system (at the data file level), from the database management layer, the network and from the application layer (Figure 1).
























 Figure 1 ' The multi-layer data exposure issue



In a typical organization, data access occurs at many levels - - - at the end user presentation layer, at the middle tier, at the application server layer, at the web server layer, at the standalone application screens and finally, at the database level directly. A properly compliant security implementation knows that it is almost impossible to clearly identify and secure all the remote data access points and that proper security and auditing is firmly in-place at the data source. Attempting to audit data from multiple remote layers is suicide, especially when hackers have learned to access information from outside the application layer, accessing the data directly from within the database or accessing the data files directly from the server.


The ability to capture data access at the data source is an absolute requirement for reliable data auditing.  While all legitimate data access is done via the application malicious hackers rarely access the system via the application screens.  Instead they access the data directly from the files on the operating system or gather the data directly from the database layer.  We also see hackers gathering confidential information directly from the web cache layer, using buffer overflow techniques to grab information from outbound HTML pages.


Even at the database layer there are opportunities to bypass the application.  Ad-hoc query tools such as SQL*Plus, Crystal Reports and ODBC tools provide backdoors for legitimate users to bypass application layer auditing.  

Consolidation of Audit Data Streams

Very few IT shops have a single database source and it can be a nightmare to try to consolidate auditing archives from heterogeneous database platforms.  Each database product manages archives in differing formats and cross-database issues can be impossible to resolve without centralization.  Audits from different database products are archived with different character sets, different formats and different organizations (Figure 2).























Figure 2 ' The problem of auditing diverse data



Here the problem is consolidating audit information along two dimensions, the multi-layer dimension and the multi-product dimension.  The key to success in this type of heterogeneous environment is to simplify the sources for data collection and to collect audit information at the source, the database layer.  For those using relational databases such as Oracle, SQL Server and Sybase, using the traditional 'grant' access to authorize end-users allows them to access the data via alternative methods such as ODBC interfaces.


For example, it is nearly impossible to track data viewing at the 'intrusion' levels (i.e. ODBC, Crystal Reports, SQL*Plus) with application-layer auditing tools.  Even if we attempt to close backdoors, there is no guarantee that all data access will happen from within the application. 


By auditing the data disclosure at the source, we eliminate the need to track access from multiple points and we greatly simplify the data auditing model (Figure 3).




















Figure 3 ' Cross-product data auditing


Now that we have ensured that all data access auditing is done at the source of the data, our only remaining issue is dealing with audits from multiple data sources.  This is especially problematic for shops with a mix of database architectures such as relational databases (Oracle), object-oriented databases (Ontos), network databases (CA-IDMS) and hierarchical databases (IMS).


Regardless of the database architecture or specific product, all data audits must capture this information:


         Who :   A full identification of the person viewing or modifying the data

         Where :   A log showing the specific application procedure and method used to access the data

         When :   A reliable date-time-stamp, globalized to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)

         What :   A full listing of all data entities that were viewed or modified

         Why :   Context-based information describing how the data was disclosed


By using a database independent vendor package you can put the audit logs in an identical format and provide a unified audit trail for the all-important reporting interface.


Remember, the audit trail is a database too, and for most shops it is the single largest data repository for the entire company.  Just as you purchase a database product that is designed to meet your application needs, many companies choose an auditing solution that is specifically designed for the needs of auditing (Figure 4).



























 Figure 4 :   A unified database for managing audit information


Now that we see the high-level architecture of the privacy auditing collection and consolidation mechanism, let's dive deeper and explore how these giant audit databases are managed. 

Minimizing Auditing Performance Overhead

Creating an unobtrusive auditing solution is a primary requirement for many shops.  Those companies who have tried to cobble-together auditing using generic database tools often find a huge overhead.  For example, Oracle shops are often tempted to use database 'triggers', a generic mechanism that fires an event when a database object is changed.  The overhead of using database triggers is significant and can double the resources required to perform database updates, resulting in declining performance and unnecessary hardware stress.


A more reasonable alternative is a passive solution that uses data recovery mechanisms.  For example, all relational databases have update logs that are archived and used in cases where disk recovery is required.  These logs are the ideal source for auditing changes to the database because they do not add additional processing.  We also find that successful enterprise auditing solutions utilize these logs in order to achieve the auditing goal within the absolute minimum overhead.


Now, let's take a look at the characteristics of a successful enterprise data auditing solution. 

Real-time Notification of Critical Events

A comprehensive solution will allow for the ad-hoc definition of alert threshold events and provide a mechanism for real-time notification via e-mail, text mail or pager (Figure 5).  Successful companies apply sophisticated filters to the audit trails at data capture time and spot suspicious trends and patterns in data access.  Many of these companies report that the system pays for itself in just a few months in cost savings from early-warning fraud detection.



















 Figure 5 : Critical real-time exception notification


Archiving Issues with Data Audits

Remember, your audit trails will be your single largest data management responsibility, eclipsing your online systems by orders of magnitude.  To fully appreciate the data volumes and complexity of privacy auditing, lets take a look at the issues for a typical company.  Consider a financial database with 500 end-users and one terabyte of information.  Because each end-user is constantly viewing personal financial information as a legitimate part of their job, every week, the audit trail must be able to archive viewing details of over 100 times the size of the original database, in some cases over 300,000,000,000,000 bytes of archived data.


Even though disk become cheaper every year, the expense of archiving trillions of bytes per week on online storage is cost-prohibitive.  They are forced to develop a mechanism to archive these vast volumes of data using semi-automated mechanisms.


Audit Trail archive processing uses a tertiary storage (tape) jukebox and a tape management system to clearly label the header of every audit tape.  The archiving process involves special hardware, complex interfaces and built-in error checking.  As each online audit disk requires archiving, an automated process will:


1 : Fetch and label a new tape

2 - Copy the disk onto tape media

3 : Re-process the audit tape:


a) Check the media for parity errors

b) Make a copy of the tape for off-site archiving and storage

c) Apply data mining programs to locate unobtrusive trends and provide real-time alerts


4 : Re-initialize the online disk


This archiving mechanism must be seamless, complete and have built-in redundancy and error checking.  When we add-in the additional dimension of data from multiple databases and auditing from multiple access layers, the problem can become unfathomable.


But it gets worse.  Archiving the data is just the front-end and you must also develop the ability to allow timely access to the archived data.  Let's take a closer look at how this works. 

Long-term Retention of Audit Trails

Long-term data retention is often mandated by business practices and legal requirements and the auditing of data access has imposed a huge burden on many companies.  The archival storage of audit trails is often 95% of the company's data, yet it is only accessed 1% of the time (Figure 6).


















Figure 6 :  The anomaly of archival data


This data anomaly also presents challenges due to the temporal nature of the audit capture and the low volume of access.  Once lost, the data can never be reclaimed, and the sheer volume of data often means that media verification (duplicitous parity checks) is prohibitive.


Many IT managers have come to realize that their point-in-time production databases only tell a small part of the story and the real value of their database is the temporal dimension.  Let's take a look at how establishing a time-series interface allows complete reporting, data mining and fraud detection capabilities. 

Reporting Value with Data Audits

In addition to meeting compliance regulations, many companies discover that they have a valuable data resource in their audit trails.  Home-grown solutions often lack an easy-to-use interface and analyzing the valuable hidden information in the audit trails is often impossible.   Ad-hoc interfaces are usually non-existent, and it can be extremely difficult to apply data mining techniques to detect unobtrusive patterns of fraud and access violations.  What's needed is an enterprise reporting capability that provides the means to derive business value from the audit data. 


Any online database is  nothing more than a fixed, point-in-time snapshot of the current information.  To get the whole picture you must add a temporal dimension to the database, and develop mechanisms to harvest your time-series information (Figure 7).


In the following chart capitalization needs to be fixed (lower case 't' in 'To' in headline.  Lower case 't' in 'Trends'




















Figure 7 : Time, the third dimension of Database Management



Even though disk costs fall 10x every year, online access to petabytes of audit data is prohibitive and this presents special challenges to the IT manager.  To confound the issue, simultaneous requests present a unique challenge because of the linear limitations of tertiary storage.  To minimize human intervention, the reporting solution must have these characteristics:


:         An easy-to-use interface

:         A mechanism to audit the audit request

:         A complex status-tracking facility

:         A notification and delivery mechanism for the completed report

:         The ability to access audit information from the application layer, database layer and server layer

:         The ability to access audit data from multiple database products


The reporting mechanism must be able to serve the needs of requests from the external community and support your in-house reporting needs.  The sheer volume of auditing data makes this reporting unique.  Answering this simple query might take hours, require mounting thousands of tapes, and involve reading trillions of bytes of data from multiple databases.

External Reporting

Your customers and clients may request complete audit trails of access to their confidential information.  In financial and medical systems, Federal laws mandate that your company be able to service these requests, providing complete reports in a timely manner.


For example, in a health care database, any patient may request a report showing all users who have viewed their confidential patient information, including who they were, what they viewed, when they viewed the data and why they needed to see their information. 


We also have the important business need to have access to the third dimension of your production database.  The value of the temporal dimension of the database can be worth millions of dollars and internal reporting capabilities provide a competitive edge to many companies.

Internal Reporting

Internally, the reporting mechanism must also allow interfaces for in-house reporting, especially in the areas of financial and marketing management.  These in-house reporting facilities fall into two general categories:


:         Decision Support : A mechanism to model 'what if' questions, simulation modeling and hypothesis testing.


:         Data Mining :Support for multivariate correlation analysis, fraud detection, trend identification and signature analysis.


As your largest database, your audit trails contain valuable hidden information.  Because the audit trails provide a time-series view of your online systems they contain information about the patterns and behavior of the end-users and a time-series view of how the data has changed over time.


Using standard data mining products you can interface with your audit trail database to determine 'typical' processing patterns and quickly identify suspicious patterns of data usage.  Data mining products are the result of decades of refinement and are very sophisticated in their ability to spot patterns and trends.  The programs are constantly analyzing your audit data, seeking statistically significant data patterns and trends. 


The huge benefits of data mining programs are often quite surprising.


:         Savings from Early Warnings - Financial institutions have discovered the hidden value in their audit trails for proactive fraud detection.  By analyzing patterns of known fraud from the audit trails, IT management can apply detection mechanisms to the online system, sending immediate alarms of untypical data access patterns, often preventing the fraud before any financial loss occurs.  This technique has saved banks and credit companies millions of dollars, and easily justifies the expense of purchasing an enterprise auditing solution.


:         Optimizing Employee Productivity - Companies can also use their audit trails to track employee productivity.  The audit trails provide an excellent unobtrusive measure of end-user value to the company and this information can be used to spot sub-optimal workers by comparing their data viewing behavior with those of known, productive employees. 


Sadly, many companies are unable to reap the benefits of data mining because they do not have a standardized, unified audit trail.  This is another major shortcoming of home-grown auditing solutions, but one that can be easily remedied because of the fast pay-back period.  Many savvy IT managers will show the projected savings from fraud detection and employee tracking, and get departmental management to pay the cost of buying a unified auditing solution and data mining product.


As we see, the benefits of purchasing a product for auditing are very real and often pay for themselves very quickly.  But even without considering the benefits to the company as a whole, in-house auditing solutions carry a host of other exposures and costs.  Let's take a closer look at the issues with home-grown auditing. 

Technical Issues with Independent Auditing Solutions

There are many reasons not to use the database vendor-supplied tools for your mission-critical auditing solutions.  Yes, they may be free, but the massive overhead and limited scope makes them inappropriate for a company-wide solution. 


Many industries are now regulated by Federal laws governing the management, disclosure and security of personal information.  HIPAA, SOX and other laws and standards required by government bodies and security organizations make security and privacy mandatory in many situations. Another law in the US, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, mandates financial institutions and their partners to protect non-public personal information by implementing a variety of access and security controls.


It is also a mistake to rely on customized auditing solutions within the application layer.  Any code that is written into the application is controlled by your developers and has an innate security exposure.  Some of their major shortcomings include:


:         Application-side auditing covers only one of many doorways and results in an unmanageable collection of disparate audit logs

:         Triggers and traces impose severe performance penalties on the database platform and can be easily altered or disabled by privileged operators

:         Database vendor-specific tools (e.g. Oracle LogMiner, Oracle Auditing, and Oracle Fine Grain Auditing) are meant to be used as occasional investigative tools, but were never intended to be a comprehensive solution.


There are also specific traps that catch the unsuspecting IT manager.  These traps appear obvious but it is surprising how many of them fail to be detected until the company data is stolen or a lawsuit is filed. 

The Auditing Traps

The common auditing traps are well-known in the IT security field and are taught in almost every business school in the USA.  Given the wide knowledge of these exposures it is surprising how often they are disregarded by the IT manager.


:        Cover all layers - Protecting the application layer is only part of the solution.  A comprehensive auditing solution must check for access at the web cache layer (cached HTML data), application server caches, database caches and backdoors, and access violations at the server level. 


:         Exclude privileged users - Another common trap is allowing privileged employees to bypass security and audit mechanisms.  Your Systems Administrator and DBA have no business touching your auditing mechanism, and while they may be responsible for the integrity of the data, a third-party must be used to perform all auditing collection, administration and reporting duties.  There have been many serious lawsuits where a dishonest DBA entered a database and changed financial data, disclosed confidential information and violated Federal data access regulations.


:         Not knowing how it happened :Finding a security violation and never being able to determine the cause creates a huge legal liability for any corporation, and this is very common among IT shops that choose to use piecemeal solutions for their privacy and auditing mechanism. In one case, a user was found to be committing fraud, but without an audit trail of exactly what transpired the organization had no way of understanding the scope of the damage.


:         Non-uniform audit rules :Another common trap is to apply different rules to auditing of different systems.  This is often the result of the limitations of the application code.  For example, you may be able to add a complete auditing solution to the system that was developed in-house, but you do not have the same luxury when using an ERP product (SAP. PeopleSoft) because you cannot touch the application code.


With all of these exposures and threats the savvy IT manager must be able to cover themselves from even the most unlikely scenario.  Here are some of the common ways that the IT manager ensures that they have a compliant, robust and comprehensive solution. 

Segregation of Auditing Duties

While general security and auditing are passive activities, a comprehensive solution to auditing requires real-time reporting of active attempts to bypass security.  Remember, smart shops close all back-door data access (e.g. ODBC) and enforce data access via the application layer.  However, we must still create an alert mechanism for all data access attempts at all layers, whether malicious or benign.  For example, the Database Administrator (DBA) often needs to view database information as part of their administrative duties, and Federal laws mandate that this data access be tracked just as data access within the application layer.


This issue of 'privilege user' access is a serious security exposure.  Because the auditing solution must audit the access of Systems Administrators and DBA's, these employees must not have any control or responsibilities for the auditing mechanism.


This segregation of duties is critical because it is considered malfeasance to give the 'Keys to the Kingdom' to anyone charged with maintaining the servers and databases.  In many cases disgruntled employees may view confidential information for personal gain and sometimes create mechanisms to disclose the information if they are terminated from employment (see horror stories later in this paper).


Shops falling under the scope of Federal privacy laws such as HIPPA are required to appoint a full-time employee, independent from the SA and DBA staff to control the auditing.  This job role has many names including the Security Privacy Auditing Manager (SPAM), Privacy Access Manager (PAM), Security Privacy Administrator (SPA)  and sundry other job titles.


Regardless of the title, the SPA must possess a combination of technical, application and management skills, unique to each organization.  For example, large health care companies normally employ a Medical Informatacist as the SPA, usually a highly trained Medical Doctor (MD) with skills in application design, systems architecture, systems administration and database administration. Financial institutions will employ a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a strong technical background.


In sum, the auditing collection, consolidation and reporting must be the responsibility of a separate IT entity, solely charged with managing all data privacy audits.  Any access outside the application layer, whether malicious or part of routine DBA duties, must set-off alarms for the SPA.


Now, let's change focus and examine how the IT manager can satisfy their due diligence requirements while satisfying their auditing challenges.

CYA for the IT Manager


The IT manager has a legal and fiduciary responsibility for the corporate data resource . This is a responsibility that should be taken very seriously. 


For example, HIPAA laws provides that a leak of information calls for a fine of up to $250,000 per incident and may result in the imprisonment of the executive in charge for a period up to 10 years. The severity of the penalty and the personification of responsibility is enough to make the executives of many organizations take this law and the issue of privacy and information protection very seriously.


As the IT manager you are also required by law (e.g. HIPAA) to provide a clear security policy that can be verifiable and, more importantly, auditable. In the normal course of business in any organization, some personnel will have to access data that is considered sensitive, so prohibiting their use is not feasible. HIPAA does not prohibit that access, but specifies that normal access be recorded as a policy, which should specify who can access what data, and any such access information should be recorded, or in other words, audited.


Even more important, the discovery phase of litigation against home-grown auditing solutions can be devastating.  Every line of code is put under a magnifying glass and security experts from around the world will be called-in to judge the lack of quality of your solution.  In almost every case the code is found wanting, and the responsible IT manager is held personally accountable for the exposure.  Here are some tips from the security experts: 

Don't Underestimate the Bad Guys

Kevin Mitnick, the noted computer felon likes to show how security breeches are commonly the result of employee errors.  In his book 'The Art of Deception', Mitnick talks about his techniques to get trusting employees to disclose confidential information and privileged passwords.  In one case Mitnick was able to secure a privileged password using the name Lemonjello, and then bragged about the na'e employee who handed-over a system password to someone called 'Lemon Jell-O'.  In this case the IT staff was never able to ascertain the root cause of the breech because their mechanism for the dissemination and auditing of secure information was inadequate. 


While external fraud remains a serious issue we must also remember that most data access violations happen internally, and most are the result of unintentional access rather than malicious fraud.


  • Don't lose prospective partners - Whenever you share data with partner companies their due diligence requires them to verify your privacy and security mechanisms.  It's far faster and easier to just name a vendor product than it is to make them undertake a multi-week examination of your home-made mechanism.  Some Federal regulations also mandate that you have a standardized information exchange interface.  For example, HIPAA mandates that the information related to health insurance must be exchanged in a standard, predefined way. For instance, all the information that typically goes to the insurance company from the provider during a claim filing must be in a certain format, defined by the law.


  • Don't get sued by customers - In today's litigious society, almost every breech of privacy and security is followed by expensive litigation.  On the issue of medical records privacy, the situation is even more fluid and prone to severe security lapses. HIPAA addresses this problem by mandating the audit requirements of these records and strictly enforcing the requirements by placing stiff penalties for non-compliance.


'         Don't lose goodwill - Security and privacy breeches are big news and slack companies are pasted across the headlines anytime a major exposure occurs.  This can be crippling to a company's reputation and brand loyalty, especially in the financial services arena when companies are judged by their absolute commitment to financial security.


There are many common misconceptions about privacy and security auditing, even amongst IT management.  If you fail to grasp the volume, scope and complexity of an auditing solution you can place your entire company at risk.  Let's take a closer look at these common misconceptions.   

Security, Privacy and Auditing Misconceptions


After interviewing dozens of IT managers, a common set of misconceptions arose regarding compliance with Federal regulations for security and privacy.  This is not surprising, given that the legalese of the actual laws is almost indecipherable, but the IT manager needs to know about the realities of these important new laws. Some of the most common misconceptions include: 

:         Prevention alone is sufficient :Traditional security measures focused on 'perimeter' security (e.g. firewalls) are an important component of mitigating the risks of inappropriate data access or changes.  But with most error and fraud occurring from within the organization, it's important to have the ability to understand exactly what is happening to the data .  A complete record of data access and change provides this 'detective' capability which augments existing security.

 Another important aspect of auditing is recording who was not granted access, not just who was permitted access, depending on the privilege setting. This could be due to a legitimate reason such as a bad password, but it could also be a hacker trying to break in with multiple attempts at guessing the password. It could even be an insider, a disgruntled employee trying to access information he or she is not authorized for. Whatever the reason may be, this kind of activity arouses suspicion and should be investigated.


:         Application access, privilege controls and logging are enough : This is a very serious misconception because it ignores the other important access areas.  As we see, all data access must be audited directly at the data source. 


:        Preventing fraud is the only goal : Many IT managers fail to account for the possibility of human error, which is more prevalent than fraud, in their auditing plan.  A comprehensive solution must account for legitimate errors by end-users and IT staff.


:         It is cheaper to build a custom audit mechanism : This is untrue - and dangerous.  While a once-over-lightly solution can be cobbled together quickly, mistakes of omission can cost your company millions of dollars in sanctions.  Worse yet, these 'cost effective' solutions almost always cost more in the long run as the IT manager discovers the huge costs associated with reporting, customization and consolidation with other audit trails.  Further, most IT organizations cannot afford to develop multiple audit systems to support their multi-platform environment.  We've already discussed that native tools cannot scale to accommodate the needs of a large enterprise.

Now that we have seen the common misconceptions let's examine the importance of auditing data at the data source, the database management layer.

Auditing Data at the Source


All IT managers know that simple triggers and code extensions can be used to enforce security and privacy at the application layer.  The real problem is securing the data source and all intermediate repositories and providing the ability to understand the root cause of the violation.


A 'detective' monitoring approach is used by many successful companies because it allows you to know what actually happened when a breech occurs.  Simple auditing based only on preventative measures will not provide this level of insight.  Just like a human detective, the detective monitoring approach observes all aspects of data access and keeps complete logs of all database activity.  To be fully safe and compliant, you must keep a complete audit trail for the data source and have a complete who, where, what, and when record of access and updates.


There are many challenges involved with auditing at the database level.  If you want to understand 'how' a violation happens, you must audit all events of interest,.  These events include privileged access by IT personnel, the auditing of all changes to the data, auditing all viewing of confidential data, and recording all changes to the database infrastructure, both by DDL and changes to executable database procedures.  Let's take a closer look at each auditing requirement. 

Auditing Privilege/Permission and Logon Events


You must have a complete record of the users who have data access including: 'who' is attempting to get it, 'what' they have rights to do with the data, 'why' they are changing the data, and 'when' the data was viewed or changed. 


While many databases such as Oracle provide primitive logon triggers for determining logon events, they don't work with many modern ERP products (SAP, Oracle Applications, PeopleSoft) because they use pre-spawned connections to the database.  User authentication and access management is done by the application server and the individual users are not exposed to the database.


The 'who' aspect of data auditing can be confounded if you use a tool such as SAP or Oracle applications that pre-spawns anonymous connections to Oracle.  The application controls user access and authenticated users are directed into the database under the control of the application (Figure 8).



















Figure 8 : External application authentication


In these types of architectures an end-user has no direct privilege against the data source and the permission to view and access data is granted via the application.  Because the application controls all database access, you don't have to be concerned about back-door access with non-application interfaces such as Crystal Reports or ODBC.


However, it is critical to audit the activity of privileged users, including DBAs, who have direct access to the database and can access or modify the application's underlying data. 

Auditing DDL Events

Managing changes to the schema definition of your database is critical.  You must have a complete record of all changes to your database system infrastructure and understand the potential security risks associated with each change.  This includes knowing that a table has been dropped or permissions have been changed inappropriately. Many open source solutions such as SCCS are inadequate and many IT managers use third-party products designed specifically to track schema changes, such as Merant PVCS (Serena), Kintana and Oracle Software Configuration Manager. 


If the organization has a policy of placing everything in the version control system, the changes made are automatically recorded. But what happens when someone makes an emergency change without using the proper procedure' The setup fails. This is a classic case of a system where the integrity can be guaranteed only when everyone follows the rules and no one bypasses them.   

Auditing DML Events

All auditing solutions must track changes to any of the data items, right-down to the column level.  It's not enough to know that a particular financial record was changed; you must also know exactly what has changed in the data content.  This includes the access method ('how' it was changed), the before and after values, and the exact time and user ID. 

Auditing SELECT Events

Many Federal regulations mandate that you keep a complete record of access to private and confidential information.  For large active databases, it is not uncommon to have daily viewing logs that are larger than the whole database and you must be able to easily run reports against this huge volume of data.  For example, the new HIPAA regulations allow any medical patient to request to know who has accessed their data in the past, and this simple query might involve accessing trillions of bytes of audit information.   When you have multiple, simultaneous requests for these reports, an improperly designed audit system might become crippled under the weight of the data volume. 

Auditing Execution and Modification of Stored Procedures

Many database shops encapsulate their database access inside code snippets called 'stored procedures'.  When using stored procedures an end-user takes-on the privileges required to execute the procedure, but only for the duration of the execution of the procedure.  In databases such as Oracle, stored procedures are written in an interpreted procedural language called PL/SQL.  As every IT manager should know, any language that is parsed and executed line-by-line is subject to injection attacks.  Hence, special audit procedures must be employed for any database that uses stored procedures.


Hardly a week passes without a report of a company suffering major losses due to an information security breach.  Let's take a look at the types of exposures faced by companies and see how an enterprise auditing solution can prevent the threats. 

Horror Stories

We need not look far to see the public cases of computer security violations and the liability suffered by the custodian of the data.  With millions of dollars at stake, there are many resourceful people waiting for you to make a mistake and expose your confidential information.  These attacks on your information take many forms, from malicious hackers, dishonest employees and honest mistakes.  Let's look at some specific ways that companies lose control of their information. 

Security Breaches, Hacks (outside-in)


Threats from hackers remain a major concern, especially threats from overseas countries in Eastern Europe and Asia.   Some companies report access attempts by automated hacker 'bots' every few minutes as these rogue programs constantly sweep the Internet looking for ports with access vulnerabilities.


These automated bots contain very sophisticated logic and are designed by criminals to identify and exploit weaknesses in online computer systems.  Some of the common exploits include: 

'         Tipping the user ID : This is where a telnet or FTP access attempt tells you that you have entered a valid ID, but provided an improper password.


:         No password disabling : Hacker routines love systems that do not disable a user ID after repeated password attempts and run bots to try hundreds of thousands of password until they gain entry.


:         Man-in-the middle attacks : Hackers can gain access to computer systems by guessing the IP address of a connected user and sending a TCP/IP packet with that users IP information.


:         Injection threats : Many database systems have vulnerabilities where access to confidential data can be gained via a SQL injection, a technique where a :1=1: string is added to a sign-on string.  For example, this query might return the :real: password for a user named Jane: 



   userid, password




   userid = 'jane'


   password = 'xxx'

OR 1=1;


:         Buffer Overflow attacks : In these attacks, the web cache buffer is deliberately overloaded to gain unauthorized entry to the system. 

Hacker attempts for web-enabled systems are constant and many companies report thousands of attempts every day.  A comprehensive auditing system will record all illegal access attempts and include the time, referrer IP address and all other relevant information.  Let's take a look at a real-world case.

The Extortion Attack Case

In this case a hacker exploited a server vulnerability, siphoned confidential information from the corporate database, and shipped it to a foreign nation that did not honor U.S copyright law.  A foreign cohort then extorted the company, proving that they had the data, and threatened to disclose proprietary secrets to a competitor unless they were paid a significant sum of money.


Faced with the loss of their competitive advantage, the company contacted the FBI and was told that there was no reciprocity with the nation and that Interpol would not be able to investigate or arrest the extortionists.  Even worse, IT management had not detected the leak, and had no idea how the thieves had accessed their database.


Surprisingly, this is not an uncommon occurrence, and many multi-national companies have accounts for bribery and extortion expenses because they are a legitimate requirement for doing business in some overseas nations.  In this case the company quietly paid the extortionist in return for the promise to destroy the data and details about how the data was stolen.


While there are always exposures from the outside world, we must also account for attacks from within our company firewall. In practice, 'inside jobs' are more common than external attacks, and they can often have devastating consequences. 

Internal Fraud (inside jobs)

IT managers report that internal fraud is the most common type of threat and special auditing mechanisms must be used to audit all access by authorized employees.  Inside job threats include the following: 

:         Root kit attacks : In a root kit attack, the operating system is compromised.  I once fixed a client site with a root kit that had installed a daemon process that was constantly accessing confidential information and e-mailing it to a competitor.  This attack went undiscovered for more than a year and virtually all of the company's proprietary information was lost.


:         Fire-me attacks : Internal IT personnel have been know to write routines that trigger a data extraction on the day when their user ID is removed from the computer system.  Because most IT procedures required pulling the user ID before notifying the employee, these hackers will return home to find all of the confidential information waiting for them in their in-box.

:         Trojan horse : Once an employee gets the internal IP address of another employee, they can map-out phony sign-on screens to their boss and get a privileged password.  These attacks are usually easy using tools such as X-Windows that allow screen images to be redirected onto other screens.


:         PC Privacy tools : Common tools such as PC Anywhere can be used to look-over the shoulder of a co-employee, snooping into their activities and passwords.

Inside jobs are the most difficult to detect, but complete audits will always reveal the 'who' and 'how' aspects of the attack.  For example, coded implants can be tracked using your source code control system software that is required by almost all Federal Regulations including SOX and HIPAA. 


Here are many documented cases of data disclosure by disgruntled employees, especially 'privileged users' who were given unaudited access privileges.  Let's look at some specific real-world horror stories.  These are not fictional stories. They actually happened, and they serve as examples of what can happen when a slack IT manager entrusts their access and auditing controls to a Systems Administrator or Database Administrator. 

The Root Kit Case

We received a call from a client who was complaining of performance problems on their Oracle database which was running on a standalone Linux server.  The company was in the business of providing credit information to third-party companies to access an individual's probability of financial default.


Upon accessing the server, it was apparent that something was terribly wrong. Even when idle, the database was performing I/O operations and the processors were active, even though Linux did not show any active processes.  The Linux 'ps' command failed to reveal any active processes.


After a Linux expert was consulted the real issue was discovered.  A disgruntled Systems Administrator had left a time-bomb on the server, to be activated when their user account was removed from the /etc/passwd file, indicating that they had been fired.


This time-bomb was activated when the System Administrator left the company to 'pursue other opportunities', and the attack was both clever and devastating.  The attacker placed a Linux daemon process called 'vacuum' on the Linux server and this process was constantly polling the Oracle database, seeking new information, and e-mailing it to an overseas mailbox.


This attack has disclosed the entire database of confidential information to an unknown party, and the company was held fully responsible because they failed to institute a third-party employee to manage their server security.


The attack was very sophisticated and unobtrusive.  The malicious employee had replaced the standard Linux commands with a 'root kit', an attack method readily available on the Internet.  In a root Kit attack, the Linux commands are replaced with an alias to disguise the presence of the data stealing mechanism.  In this case, the process command 'ps' was replaced with the command ps|grep -i vacuum, such that the process would not appear within Linux.


Sometimes internal fraud occurs when employees are entrusted with data that has value to outside parties.  Let's take a look at one such case. 

The Phony College Transcript Case

In this real-world case, a Database Administrator for a major university was caught 'enhancing' college transcripts to allow people to gain acceptance to top professional schools.  The DBA had complete control over the database and the auditing mechanism and was charging friends and acquaintances thousands of dollars to add courses and improve existing grades.  Because the DBA controlled the audit mechanism she was able to completely erase all traces of the fraudulent changes.


This fraud went undetected for more than five years until a professor discovered the fraud.  The professor was asked questions about a former student as part of a pre-employment background check and discovered that the student had never taken his class even though the official university transcript indicated an 'A' for the course.


Ironically, the bulk of the fraudulent transcripts were used to gain entrance to law schools and several of them had graduated and were practicing law.  The losses and penalties from this access violation were substantial: 

'         The Director of Database Systems was fired for malfeasance for allowing the security loophole.


'         The university suffered a huge loss of credibility and the accuracy of over 100,000 graduates was tainted, all because of a single privileged violation.


'         The perpetrator DBA pled guilty to computer fraud and grand larceny and received 5-10 years in Federal prison.


'         The university had to undertake a grade re-verification process that cost more than $600,000 dollars.


'         Several practicing attorneys were disbarred, but ironically many of those who had successfully completed their graduate schools were allowed to retain their degrees, even though they entered the schools with falsified transcripts.

Of course, not all privileged disclosures are malicious.  Next, let's look at cases where honest mistakes can disclose confidential information to third parties. 

Honest Mistakes

In many cases multi-million dollar losses are the result of human error and bad judgment on the part of the users of the database, and in some cases, the IT staff.  These types of mistakes can take the form of trusting a telephone caller who wants a password (the Kevin Mitnik approach), or a failure to recognize the impact of the disclosure.


There is also an important issue when information is aggregated by the IT department for marketing purposes.  The privacy and security laws allow the sharing of summarized information so long as the identity of any individual cannot be ascertained.  However, when the summarization includes 'outer bounds' data then it is sometimes easy to violate disclosure laws.  For example, a report summary of HIV patients, aggregated by city and profession might reveal the personal identity of the only Taxidermist in Nome Alaska.


Caution must be taken when sharing summarized and aggregated personal information to remove all results with a limited set of participants so that personal identities are not revealed.  Let's take a look at how honest mistakes can cause irreparable harm to your company. 

The Hotel Fiasco Case

In a widely publicized court case from the 1990s, a major hotel chain collected detailed information about their weekday guests' use of their hotels.  They employed a data warehouse analyst who created a target marketing campaign, offering special coupons to those guests who frequently used the hotel on weekdays.  This targeted mass mailing of weekday-stay coupons were sent to the home addresses of the guests, with disastrous results.  More than a dozen people were informed about their spouse's infidelity as a direct result of this coupon campaign and more than six divorces resulted from the company's actions.


While this action was not in violation of the privacy laws per se, the result of the campaign was to disclose private information about embarrassing information to a third party.  A more appropriate approach in this case would have been to mail the coupons to the guests work addresses.


These horror stories serve to remind the IT manager that a comprehensive auditing and security system must have controls to audit all telephone disclosures of confidential information, including verifiable information about the recipient of the information. 

Privacy Issues Associated with Data Viewing

The protection of personal privacy is an important aspect of system auditing, and the IT manager must remember that it is their responsibility to ensure that the information is not improperly disclosed to third parties.  However, an important legal issue arises when one of your employees accesses private information for non work-related purposes.  These purposes might include an employee finding 'dirt' on an ex-friend or previous boss, or using their access to your computer system for extortion or harassment. 


In one important appellate case, a woman's job description involved accessing confidential information.  As an authorized user, she accessed embarrassing information about her ex-husband and used the information to her benefit in a child custody case.  The court ruled that even though the information was obtained with an unsavory motive, the ex-wife was authorized to view the data and the damning confidential evidence was allowed in the case.  The ex-husband, outraged at the privacy violation, sued the ex-wife's employer for millions of dollars for allowing his ex-spouse access to his confidential data.  In this case, the company needed safeguards to verify 'why' the data was needed.  It's not enough to issue a blanket authorization and hope that the privilege is not abused by your employees.


In these cases the IT manager must have a full audit trail but they must also be also be able to show 'why' that employee needed access to the confidential information. To provide this level of detail the IT audit trail must show contextual information about the employees work session and show the flow-of-control within the computer system.


This is another area where a 'detective' approach to audit analysis is valuable.  Sophisticated audit control systems allow for specific decision rules to be applied to audit trials and these algorithms are designed to detect unusual patterns of access to private information.


Taken together, these issues make IT privacy security auditing a scary and risky proposition.  Let's face it, with something as mission critical and challenging as auditing and IT manager would be insane to attempt to create their own solution.  It would be like an IT shop writing a proprietary database management system.  Of course, such things are best left to companies who specialize in such matters.


Even more importantly, the IT manager has enough responsibilities without being held accountable for data security software.  By acquiring a nationally-known and respected product, the scope of liability for the IT manager drops dramatically and they are only responsible for the proper installation, administration and management of the auditing software.


Let's take a look at one of these proprietary solutions. 

Enterprise Data Auditing Products

If you accept the conventional wisdom that it is foolhardy to attempt to construct your own auditing solution, the next step is choosing the right product.  Small, homogenous shops will be happy to find that there are a small number of database product-centric auditing packages in the marketplace, but large IT shops are perplexed to find that there are very few that provide an Enterprise-wide, unified solution to companies with heterogeneous databases and applications.


As of 2004 the 'Entegra' product by Lumigent is the dominant data auditing solutions provider for large IT shops with multiple data sources. 


Let's use Entegra as an example and see why an enterprise solution is appropriate for many IT shops.


  • Comprehensive auditing : Entegra captures database activity including DML (including before and after values), DDL (schema and permissions changes), and SELECT statements (who viewed what data, to address privacy concerns).


  • Alerts for early warning :Alerts on DDL activity of interest can be sent via email or recorded in the event log.  This enables early resolution of potential issues before they become a big problem (e.g. detecting fraud early to mitigate significant damage.


  • Great management CYA : Back in the 1970:s when IBM ruled the hardware arena there was a saying in Data Processing that 'Nobody ever got fired for calling IBM'.  That principle is alive-and-well with today's Information Systems, and a prudent IT manager has never been fired for choosing a leading vendor tool.


  • Cost savings : The job of the IT department is to manage the company's data, not to write system management software.  Data security and privacy auditing is a complex and dangerous job, and best left to specialized products.  The unification of the audit mechanism also opens the door to data mining tools which can rapidly pay for the vendor product.


  • Standardization of audit trail database : Solutions such as Entegra create and consolidate audit data from multiple database platforms into a uniform audit database.  Remember, your audit trail is your largest database and a source of valuable corporate information.


  • Allows for segregation of duties : A key tenet of auditing principles is 'segregation of duty' ' avoiding the fox watching the hen house.  With an enterprise auditing solution such as Entegra you no longer need to bet your business by relying on internal employee honesty.  Plus, you are protected by having an audit trail of all employees, including trusted employees.


  • Unobtrusive audit collection mechanism : Vendor solutions such as Entegra are optimized to use existing logs and they have very little run-time impact on your mission-critical production systems.


  • Unified reporting interface : Tools such as Entegra offer an intuitive user interface that makes it easy to create, schedule, manage and distribute reports for management or auditors (Figure 8).  Reporting enables the audit data to deliver real value to the business by providing insight into how data is being accessed and used.



Figure 8 : A Screenshot from the Entegra reporting Interface



  • Allows for segregation of duties : A key tenet of auditing principles is 'segregation of
    duty' avoiding the fox watching the hen house. With an enterprise auditing solution
    such as Entegra, you no longer need to bet your business by relying on internal
    employee honesty. Plus, you are protected by having an audit trail of all employees,
    including trusted employees.

  • Centralized Administration : Having a product specifically designed to meet the needs of auditing can greatly reduce IT staff overhead.  Vendor-based solutions allow for standard administrative interfaces and minimal participation from internal IT staff .




In sum, adopting a solution such as Entegra is the most robust and cost-effective solution.  As databases and application systems become more complex, and the demands of regulatory compliance increase, the possible exposures are multiplied and the prudent IT manager will opt for an expert data auditing solution.  



This whitepaper has highlighted the core objectives and issues relating to a successful enterprise-wide security, privacy and auditing solution.  The paper articulated the challenges for the IT department which can be summarized in two kinds of business risk categories.  First, there is inherent risk in managing corporate data.  IT is responsible for the integrity and security of the data which the organization relies on to manage the business. Secondly, the increasing regulatory environment is creating new demands from the executive team and auditors that IT be able to demonstrate exactly whos accessing or changing what data, and how. 


We examined the requirements for an enterprise auditing solution, which can be summarized as:

  • Comprehensive capture of all database activity
  • Enterprise enabled
  • Supports multiple database platforms
  • Architected for performance
  • No 'backdoors'  captures activity of privileged users with direct database access
  • Alerting for early detection of issues
  • Reporting capabilities to derive business value from audit data
  • Adheres to auditing and IT best practices, including segregation of duties

About the Author:


Donald Burleson is one of the world's top Oracle Database experts with more than 20 years of full-time DBA experience.  He specializes in creating secure database architectures for very large online databases and he has worked with some of the world's most powerful and complex systems.   Burleson is an author of the bestselling book Oracle Privacy Security Auditing by Rampant TechPress, which includes proven techniques for Federal Law Compliance with HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.


A former Adjunct Professor Emeritus, Donald Burleson has written 32 books, published more than 100 articles in National Magazines, and serves as Senior Consulting Editor for DBAZine and Series Editor for Rampant TechPress. Don is a popular lecturer and teacher and is a frequent speaker at OracleWorld and other international database conferences.


As a leading corporate database security consultant, Burleson has worked with numerous Fortune 500 corporations creating secure database architectures for mission-critical systems.  Burleson is also a noted expert on eCommerce system security, and has been instrumental in the development of numerous Web-based systems that support thousands of concurrent users.


Donald Burleson's professional web sites include and


If you like Oracle tuning, you might enjoy my book "Oracle Tuning: The Definitive Reference", with 950 pages of tuning tips and scripts. 

You can buy it direct from the publisher for 30%-off and get instant access to the code depot of Oracle tuning scripts.



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