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Better security through better visualization

I’m always excited when I stumble across an area which is an intersection of two of my favorite topics. Recently, I started reading Applied Security Visualization by Raffael Marty. In the book, Marty introduces the concepts and techniques of network visualization and explains how you can use that information to identify patterns in the data and possible emerging vulnerabilities and attacks. It’s the perfect merger of data visualization (a topic fellow expert Karen Johnson has me hooked on) and security.

This morning, I stumbled across an ITworld article Marty published earlier this month on getting started with security visualization. In the article Marty provides three simple must-dos and don’ts:

The three “must-dos” from the article:

  • Learn about visualization: It’s important for security people to understand the basics of visualization. Learn a bit about perception and good practices for generating effective graphs. Learn about which charts to use for which kinds of use cases and data. This is the minimum you should know about visualization.
  • Understand your data: Visualization is not a magic method that will explain the contents of a given data set. Without understanding the underlying data, you can’t generate a meaningful graph and you won’t be able to interpret the graphs generated.
  • Get to know your environment: I can be an expert in firewalls and know all there is to know about a specific firewall’s logs. However, if you give me a visualization of a firewall log, I won’t be able to tell you much or help you figure out what you should focus on. Context is important. You need to know the context in which the logs were generated. What are the roles of the machines on the network, what are some of the security policies, what type of traffic is normal, etc. You can use visualization to help understand the context, but there are things you have to know up front.

And the three “don’ts”:

  • Don’t get scared: The topic of security visualization is a big one. You have to know a lot of things from visualization to security. Start small. Start with some data that you know well. Start with some simple use cases and explore visualization slowly.
  • Don’t do it all at once: Start with a small data set. Maybe a few hundred log lines. Once you are happy with the results you get for a small data set, increase the size and see what that does to your visualization. Still happy? Increase the size some more until you end up with the complete data set.
  • Don’t do it yourself: If you’re in charge of data analysis and you aren’t the data owner (meaning that you don’t understand the application that generates the data intimately well) you should get help from the data owner. Have the application developers or other experts help you understand the data and create the visuals together with you.

If you’d like to read more on the topic (and see some cool examples) check out Raffael Marty’s blog.

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