File Integrity Monitoring – Use FIM to Cover All the Bases

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Why use FIM in the first place?

For most people, the answer is ‘because my auditor/bank/security consultant said we had to!’ Security standards like the PCI DSS mandate a requirement for regular file integrity checks, including log file backups/archives, and this is the initial driver for most organizations to implement FIM.

Unlike anti-virus and firewalling technology, FIM is not yet seen as a mainstream security requirement. In some respects, FIM is similar to data encryption, in that both are undeniably valuable security safeguards to implement, but both are used sparingly, reserved for niche or specialized security requirements.

How does FIM help with data security?

At a basic level, File Integrity Monitoring will verify that important system files and configuration files have not changed, in other words, the files’ integrity has been maintained.

Why is this important? In the case of system files – program, application or operating system files – these should only change when an update, patch or upgrade is implemented. At other times, the files should never change.

Most security breaches involving theft of data from a system will either use a keylogger to capture data being entered into a PC (the theft then perpetrated via a subsequent impersonated access), or some kind of data transfer conduit program, used to siphon off information from a server. In all cases, there has to be some form of malware implanted onto the system, generally operating as a Trojan i.e. the malware impersonates a legitimate system file so it can be executed and provided with access privileges to system data.

In these instances, a file integrity check will detect the Trojans existence, and given that zero day threats or targeted APT (advanced persistent threat) attacks will evade anti-virus measures, FIM comes into its own as a must-have security defense measure. To give the necessary peace of mind that a file has remained unchanged, the file attributes governing security and permissions, as well as the file length and cryptographic hash value must all be tracked.

Similarly, for configuration files, computer configuration settings that restrict access to the host, or restrict privileges for users of the host must also be maintained. For example, a new user account provisioned for the host and given admin or root privileges is an obvious potential vector for data theft – the account can be used to access host data directly, or to install malware that will provide access to confidential data.

File Integrity Monitoring and Configuration Hardening

Which brings us to the subject of configuration hardening. Hardening a configuration is intended to counteract the wide range of potential threats to a host and there are best practice guides available for all versions of Solaris, Ubuntu, RedHat, Windows and most network devices. Known security vulnerabilities are mitigated by employing a fundamentally secure configuration set-up for the host.

For example, a key basic for securing a host is via a strong password policy. For a Solaris, Ubuntu or other Linux host, this is implemented by editing the /etc/login.defs file or similar, whereas a Windows host will require the necessary settings to be defined within the Local or Group Security Policy. In either case, the configuration settings exist as a file that can be analyzed and the integrity verified for consistency (even if, in the Windows case, this file may be a registry value or the output of a command line program).

Therefore file integrity monitoring ensures a server or network device remains secure in two key dimensions: protected from Trojans or other system file changes, and maintained in a securely defended or hardened state.

File integrity assured – but is it the right file to begin with?

But is it enough to just use FIM to ensure system and configuration files remain unchanged? By doing so, there is a guarantee that the system being monitored remains in its original state, but there is a risk of perpetuating a bad configuration, a classic case of ‘junk in, junk out’ computing. In other words, if the system was built using an impure source – the recent Citadel keylogger scam is estimated to have netted over $500M in funds stolen from bank accounts where PCs were set-up using pirated Windows Operating System DVDs, each one with keylogger malware included free of charge.

In the corporate world, OS images, patches and updates are typically downloaded directly from the manufacturer website, therefore providing a reliable and original source. However, the configuration settings required to fully harden the host will always need to be applied and in this instance, file integrity monitoring technology can provide a further and invaluable function.

The best Enterprise FIM solutions can not only detect changes to configuration files/settings, but also analyze the settings to ensure that best practice in security configuration has been applied.

In this way, all hosts can be guaranteed to be secure and set-up in line with not just industry best practice recommendations for secure operation, but with any individual corporate hardened build-standard.

A hardened build-standard is a pre-requisite for secure operations and is mandated by all formal security standards such as PCI DSS, SOX, HIPAA, and ISO27K.


Even if FIM is being adopted simply to meet the requirements of a compliance audit, there is a wide range of benefits to be gained over and above simply passing the audit.

Protecting host systems from Trojan or malware infection cannot be left solely to anti-virus technology. The AV blind-spot for zero day threats and APT-type attacks leaves too much doubt over system integrity not to utilize FIM for additional defense.

But preventing breaches of security is the first step to take, and hardening a server, PC or network device will fend off all non-insider infiltrations. Using a FIM system with auditing capabilities for best practice secure configuration checklists makes expert-level hardening straightforward.

Don’t just monitor files for integrity – harden them first!

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