3. Current system or situation

3.1. Background, objectives, and scope

Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7 (HSPD-7), [Exe03] released in 2003, set in motion a number of policy changes and created awareness of a new problem – the term for which is now ingrained into our lexicon: critical infrastructure protection. That document specifies the actions to be taken to identify, prioritize, and address the vulnerabilities to the systems and services that have relevance to the American way and quality of life. Local (city and county) government provides systems and services that maintain and improve the quality of life at the scale at which citizens identify most directly. eGovernment services allow citizens to pay bills, obtain a business license, communicate with elected officials, etc. Local government arguably maintains 85% of critical infrastructure, yet its protection is largely unaddressed. While the rest of the world is focused on nation-state hackers versus Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems or cardholder data breaches, local governments with their silos, poor budgets and priorities that change with the political wind are attempting to protect water purification, traffic management, public safety communications and a great many other services – the loss of which would arguably have an impact including loss of life. Local government is acknowledged in HSPD-7 as being integral to critical infrastructure protection, however no reasonable effort has been made to address cyber defenses on the local scale. Efforts to date to secure cyberspace have called for a comprehensive system that protects federal government agencies. A “comprehensive system” for securing the United States electronic infrastructure that does not include local governments, however, is not truly comprehensive.

Taking this all into consideration, two things become clear:

  • Critical infrastructure dependencies on local government must be addressed
  • Local governments need assistance with detective controls – security monitoring – and with response capabilities

Both these issues may be addressed by extending a concept that is common to corporate IT organizations into the local government sector: managed security service. Specifically, were a central location available for securely routing activity logs, firewall and IDS alerts, and other forms of information typically collected (but not analyzed) on networks, and then made available to local governments as near real-time alerts and a portal for situational awareness, the gaps between the criticality of the systems and services, and the degree to which critical infrastructure elements are being protected can be addressed.

The Public Regional Information Security Event Management (PRISEM) system was designed to address gaps in capabilities between federal and local government entities. PRISEM extends a concept common to corporate IT organizations – managed security services – into the local government sector. It enhances security oversight and controls and improves the ability to detect and respond early to threats against critical infrastructure. It moves beyond basic information sharing and creates an action-oriented alliance that leverages limited expertise across resource-constrained local government IT organizations. It creates a partnership between a top-tier research university, federal law enforcement fusion center, and private sector organizations. Its benefits will include increased security and compliance capabilities, increased productivity, improved performance, and lower costs for participants.

PRISEM capabilities

PRISEM capabilities

The intent of the PRISEM system is to combine standard security devices event log data using a commercial Security Information Event Management (SIEM) system, fed in part by event log data from the DHS-funded NetFlow based system (formerly known as Einstein 1), correlating these events using the SIEM to detect structural bot activity that has a high probability of being an infected computer. It uses the Collective Intelligence Framework (CIF) database system to produce watchlists for real-time monitoring, as well as to provide historical attack context. A geographic front end provides a regional context to alerts in the system for at-a-glance situational awareness. The system now allows indicators of compromise (IOCs) to be used for both finding events that were missed in the past and/or watching for new events in the future. This is depicted in Figure PRISEM capabilities.

The primary mission of the PRISEM system is threefold:

  • To enhance the information security capabilities of local government and address exposures to critical infrastructure, systems and services without significantly raising cost, by providing the means to obtain visibility into attacks against information technology resources;
  • To provide a method for reporting cyber-security event or trend information in a consistent and automated fashion, for further evaluation by intelligence or law-enforcement communities in a manner that is respectful of national and international standards of individual privacy; and
  • To create an action-oriented operational setting for the deployment of research-grade technologies that were funded by the federal government, in order to evaluate their effectiveness and assist with their transition into commercial products.

In 2008 The Federal Emergency Mangement Agency, part of DHS, released the National Response Framework. [Fed08] The relationship building between hometown security and Homeland security began to form an enduring partnership. As part of its commitment to hometown security, “DHS has worked to get tools, information, and resources out of Washington, D.C. and into the hands of our federal, state, local, tribal and territorial law enforcement partners.” [Dep13] The PRISEM project, initiated this same year, is an example of this effort to bring these resources to the SLTT government level. It has served this purpose, but to date only in the Puget Sound region.

Fast forward to February 2013. The President of the United States issues two new policies:

  1. Executive Order 13636: Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity [Exe13a] and
  2. Presidential Policy Directive 21: Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience. [Exe13b]

These two documents (known as EO 13636 and PPD 21) reflect the acknowledgement that:

  • America’s national security and economic prosperity are dependent upon the operation of critical infrastructure that is increasingly at risk to the effects of cyber attacks.
  • The vast majority of U.S. critical infrastructure is owned and operated by the private sector and/or State, Local, Territorial, and Tribal (SLTT) government entities, not by the federal government.
  • A strong partnership between the public and private sector, as well as between SLTT government entities in regions of the country, is crucial in reducing the risk to these vital systems.

3.2. Operational policies and constraints

3.2.1. Policies

  • EO 13636 and PPD 21 provide guidance on how the federal government will work with private sector operators of critical infrastructure systems in order “to prepare for, prevent, mitigate, and respond to threats.”
  • Policies for each of the SLTT government and private sector entities participating in the PRISEM system, and the PRISEM participant agreement, have privacy impacts when sharing information outside the project.

3.2.2. Assumptions

  • It is assumed that the Ops-Trust portal system will be easy enough to refactor to accommodate the required API for user interface enhancements that underlie the DIMS front-end.
  • In addition, a successful application penetration test result (and remediation of critical security flaws that these tests may uncover) is a pre-requisite for the Ops-Trust stewards to allow the code to be released to the general public.
  • It is assumed that the open source tools necessary to provide the full set of capabilities described here and in the DIMS DIMS System Requirements v 2.6.2 document, can be assembled in such a manner that they provide the necessary features in a coherent and integrated a manner.
  • We assume that the stakeholders who have expressed an interest in providing requirements and beta-testing feedback will follow through. It will be important to have at least two groups (beyond the Ops-Trust community and US-CERT) perform some “live-fire” structured information sharing experiments in order to fully exercise the data sharing aspects of DIMS. It is hoped that an organization like NCFTA, who is already familiar with the Ops-Trust portal system, can facilitate development and testing of the specific information sharing features that are part of their daily business processes.

3.2.3. Constraints

  • Data currently held in the PRISEM system cannot be shared with non-PRISEM members without the express permission of those whose data is held in the system. The DIMS team is operating under an NDA with the City of Seattle for access to the City’s data in the PRISEM system for development purposes. Anonymization features described in this document are intended to facilitate sharing within these policy constraints.

  • The DIMS team is operating under an NDA with the Ops-Trust organization for access to the source code for their portal. In 2014, the Ops-Trust developers released the source for the initial portal on GitHub (https://github.com/ops-trust/portal.git). Other information not made public yet cannot be released without their permission.


    Farsight Security has been working on a reimplemntation of the original Ops-Trust portal system, known as Trident, and plans to release it in open source form in 2016.

  • The DIMS team is operating under export control restrictions that apply to any/all encryption software used in the system. Based on consultation with UW Export Control authorities, the DIMS team will design the system such that it can be released as open source without encryption software included (but will list its pre-requisite status, where it can be obtained, and how it can be installed by the end user), or will deliver pre-installed/configured versions of the system only under export control restricting agreements negotiated by the appropriate authorities at the UW.

3.3. Description of current system or situation

There are gaps in functionality in the existing sub-systems that DIMS is intended to address. The three primary sub-systems are: (1) the current PRISEM system; (2) The CIF database; and (3) the Ops-Trust portal; Each of these will be examined in turn.

3.3.1. The PRISEM System

  • Event collection, correlation, archiving
  • Distillation of hundreds of alerts per day from (low) tens of millions of events per day
  • Integrates the NetFlow Botnets System behavioral detection capability
  • Requires intensive administration and coding when provisioning new tenants
  • Proprietary vendor portal the principal user interface

The PRISEM system works by collecting logs from each participating site, and in some cases also processing NetFlow V5 records with the Botnets System. At its most basic, the data flow for any given PRISEM participant site from participant to central collection and processing initially worked as shown in Figure Original PRISEM architecture (source: presentation on PRISEM circa 2012).

Original PRISEM architecture

Original PRISEM architecture

Internally, the event data collection flow at a single site looks something like Figure Syslog Event Collection.

Syslog Event Collection

Syslog Event Collection

PRISEM is the first regional government collaboration in the United States to enter into a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with US-CERT to receive de-classified IOCs. The intent is to receive and send these indicators using MITRE Corporation’s Structured Threat Information eXpression (STIX) format. The goal is to eventually link the IOCs with Tools/Tactics/Procedures (TTPs) and Courses of Action (CoA) to provide actionable intelligence to PRISEM members (see Figure Relationship between STIX Elements – original source: Bret Jordan, Blue Coat Systems).

Relationship of STIX Elements

Relationship between STIX Elements

The PRISEM system has demonstrated that sharing event logs within a trust community improves the situational awareness across regional SLTT government entities, that collaborative response improves everyone’s capacity to respond and recover, and that situational awareness reports being fed back to the federal government through participation in Fusion Center activities. There are as many as five regional SLTT collaboration efforts that the PRISEM leadership has interacted with and who have expressed an interest in replicating what has been done within PRISEM (see Section Users/Affected Personnel for New System).

There are limitations in what PRISEM is capable of doing, primarily based on the commercial off the shelf SIEM system at its core, and the reliance on a proprietary vendor portal for the user interface that PRISEM participants use on a daily basis. There is no flexible and secure real-time communication vehicle that PRISEM participants use on a regular basis, and interaction among PRISEM participants and analyst resources could be much higher. Also related to the use of the vendor portal is a limitation on the visualization and analytic capabilities. The portal only supports what the vendor has programmed it to support. There is no easy way to integrate newly developed features, visualization tools, or analytic algorithms that operate on the PRISEM datasets.

3.3.2. Collective Intelligence Framework (CIF) Database

  • “Indicators of Compromise”
  • Hashes of malicious software
  • IP addresses, CIDR network address blocks, and DNS domain names associated with malicious activity (e.g., from sandboxes)
  • Builds context about attacker activity over time
  • Produces feeds of indicators for watchlists, searching hard drives, rules for security devices, etc.

CIF provides a database of historic IOCs obtained from feeds that it consumes on a regular basis. In turn, CIF produces feeds of IOCs that can be used for watchlists, access control lists, IPS rules, etc. The PRISEM system uses CIF to produce watchlists that are used by the Python based Botnets System detectors processing real-time NetFlow V5 records sent from network devices for real-time detection of suspect flows. CIF correlates data in its tables, associating IOCs from multiple sources, as well as enriching the data by looking up ASNs, domain name to IP address associations, etc. Users can enter IOC data using CIF’s browser plug-in, the CIFglue application from Verizon, or through the CIF API.

The PRISEM system also processes “SEARCH” records that are added to CIF when someone searches, putting those IP addresses or CIDR blocks that are searched for, but produce no results, into a watchlist. A more accurate way to do this is to have users explicitly put suspicious IP addresses or CIDR blocks into CIF with special tagging that is then used to generate a watchlist.

While not a lack of features in CIF, per se, the way CIF is being used is lacking in potential. While the PRISEM uses CIF to generate watchlists for real-time network flow detectors, and creates a special watchlist for “SEARCH” records as described above to watch for highly suspicious events, PRISEM users (and the vendor portal) are not taking advantage of the full power of watchlists because users must know how to manually enter data using one of the secondary CIF-specific mechanisms listed above as the vendor portal does not currently provide this ability.

CIF is also not being used to store security event information related to alerts that are positively identified by analysts as being true-positive indicators of compromise (or confirmation of IOCs sent to the system or entered manually by analysts.) Were these events to be stored, they would be correlated with other IOCs and could be published as a feed to interested outside parties.

3.3.3. Ops-Trust portal Code Base

  • Handles adding users by nomination + vouching workflow processing

  • Segregates trust groups (public or hidden) per administrator defined policy

  • Facilitates encrypted communication via email, and out-of-band contact via phone, IM, etc.

  • Provides a secure wiki for holding information contributed by users and other group knowledge

  • Holds attributes about users:

    • Name, nick-name (handle) to identify them in wiki
    • Telephone number for out-of-band communication
    • Closest airport to facilitate meeting in person when on the road
    • PGP (or GPG) encryption key
    • Instant messaging system username

The Ops-Trust portal currently does a good job of the nomination and vouching workflow that allows user accounts to be set up and attributes populated. It then does a good job of segregating trust groups from each other, including facilitating encrypted email communications and storing data in a wiki.

There are several limitations to the way the Ops-Trust portal works and is used. All IOC data is passed around at present is in arbitrary forms (ASCII text columnar data in random field orderings, CSV files, PDF files, etc.) and may be in the body of an email, as a MIME attachment, or in a file specified by a URL in the body of the message. Often long lines of columnar data get wrapped and are difficult to read or parse with scripts. Cutting/pasting into security systems is difficult, if not impossible when thousands of lines of data are included in some random field in a large columnar list. Traffic Light Protocol (TLP) tagging is done in random ways (if done at all), and TLP tags in the body of a message do not get included when an attached file is saved to disk. The subject line of emails includes the list and it, and the list trailer at the bottom of the email, must be manually scrubbed when forwarding a message off-list. Users must read every message in a thread in order to keep up on new data that may involve hosts or networks that the reader is responsible for protecting, and widespread and rapidly progressing events can generate dozens or even hundreds of messages in a day, which is difficult to keep up with.

3.4. Users/Involved personnel for Current System

The current PRISEM system has the following sets of users and involved personnel:

  • Participating sites are mostly contributors of event log data, and consumers of alerts and reports. They receive notification from either a managed security service vendor’s Security Operations Center (SOC) staff, or from the primary analyst working out of the Seattle Fusion Center.

    Select participants in the existing PRISEM system will be involved in requirement collection, test and evaluation, and will be the initial users of a DIMS deployment.

  • The current PRISEM principal analyst who interacts with the Seattle Fusion Center will contribute to requirements (primarily in the form of user stories), and will assist with test and evaluation of DIMS.

  • A research scientist at the University of Washington (also the PI on this contract), who helped design and test capabilities in the original PRISEM system, will contribute technical architectural design, requirement definition, test and evaluation, documentation, and initial user training on the DIMS system.

3.5. Support concept

The current PRISEM system has been supported through grant funding, support for hosting hardware by entities at the University of Washington, and contracting with a commercial managed security service vendor with working experience with the underlying commercial SIEM system originally chosen for use by PRISEM. This system is known as Log Matrix and is an end-of-life product now owned by Intel subsequent to their acquisition of McAfee.

[Exe03]Executive Office of the President. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 7: Critical Infrastructure Identification, Prioritization, and Protection. http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/laws/gc_1214597989952.shtm, December 2003.
[Fed08]Federal Emergency Management Agency. National Response Framework. http://www.fema.gov/pdf/emergency/nrf/nrf-core.pdf, January 2008.
[Dep13]Department of Homeland Security. Strengthening the Security and Resilience of the Nation’s Critical Infrastructure. http://www.dhs.gov/strengthening-security-and-resilience-nation’s-critical-infrastructure, August 2013.
[Exe13a]Executive Office of the President. Executive Order No. 13636. http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/eo/eo-13636.pdf, February 2013.
[Exe13b]Executive Office of the President. Presidential Policy Directive – Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience/PPD-21. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/02/12/presidential-policy-directive-critical-infrastructure-security-and-resil, February 2013.