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ITL Security Bulletins header image  

March 1997
Audit Trails

Audit trails maintain a record of system activity both by system and application processes and by user activity of systems and applications. In conjunction with appropriate tools and procedures, audit trails can assist in detecting security violations, performance problems, and flaws in applications. This bulletin focuses on audit trails as a technical control and discusses the benefits and objectives of audit trails, the types of audit trails, and some common implementation issues.

An audit trail is a series of records of computer events, about an operating system, an application, or user activities. A computer system may have several audit trails, each devoted to a particular type of activity. Auditing is a review and analysis of management, operational, and technical controls. The auditor can obtain valuable information about activity on a computer system from the audit trail. Audit trails improve the auditability of the computer system.

Audit trails may be used as either a support for regular system operations or a kind of insurance policy or as both of these. As insurance, audit trails are maintained but are not used unless needed, such as after a system outage. As a support for operations, audit trails are used to help system administrators ensure that the system or resources have not been harmed by hackers, insiders, or technical problems.


Audit trails can provide a means to help accomplish several security-related objectives, including individual accountability, reconstruction of events (actions that happen on a computer system), intrusion detection, and problem analysis.

    Individual Accountability

    Audit trails are a technical mechanism that help managers maintain individual accountability. By advising users that they are personally accountable for their actions, which are tracked by an audit trail that logs user activities, managers can help promote proper user behavior. Users are less likely to attempt to circumvent security policy if they know that their actions will be recorded in an audit log.

    For example, audit trails can be used in concert with access controls to identify and provide information about users suspected of improper modification of data (e.g., introducing errors into a database). An audit trail may record "before" and "after" versions of records. (Depending upon the size of the file and the capabilities of the audit logging tools, this may be very resource-intensive.) Comparisons can then be made between the actual changes made to records and what was expected. This can help management determine if errors were made by the user, by the system or application software, or by some other source.

    Audit trails work in concert with logical access controls, which restrict use of system resources. Granting users access to particular resources usually means that they need that access to accomplish their job. Authorized access, of course, can be misused, which is where audit trail analysis is useful. While users cannot be prevented from using resources to which they have legitimate access authorization, audit trail analysis is used to examine their actions. For example, consider a personnel office in which users have access to those personnel records for which they are responsible. Audit trails can reveal that an individual is printing far more records than the average user, which could indicate the selling of personal data. Another example may be an engineer who is using a computer for the design of a new product. Audit trail analysis could reveal that an outgoing modem was used extensively by the engineer the week before quitting. This could be used to investigate whether proprietary data files were sent to an unauthorized party.

    Reconstruction of Events

    Audit trails can also be used to reconstruct events after a problem has occurred. Damage can be more easily assessed by reviewing audit trails of system activity to pinpoint how, when, and why normal operations ceased. Audit trail analysis can often distinguish between operator-induced errors (during which the system may have performed exactly as instructed) or system-created errors (e.g., arising from a poorly tested piece of replacement code). If, for example, a system fails or the integrity of a file (either program or data) is questioned, an analysis of the audit trail can reconstruct the series of steps taken by the system, the users, and the application. Knowledge of the conditions that existed at the time of, for example, a system crash, can be useful in avoiding future outages. Additionally, if a technical problem occurs (e.g., the corruption of a data file) audit trails can aid in the recovery process (e.g., by using the record of changes made to reconstruct the file).

    Intrusion Detection

    Intrusion detection refers to the process of identifying attempts to penetrate a system and gain unauthorized access. If audit trails have been designed and implemented to record appropriate information, they can assist in intrusion detection. Although normally thought of as a real-time effort, intrusions can be detected in real time, by examining audit records as they are created (or through the use of other kinds of warning flags/notices), or after the fact (e.g., by examining audit records in a batch process).

    Real-time intrusion detection is primarily aimed at outsiders attempting to gain unauthorized access to the system. It may also be used to detect changes in the system's performance indicative of, for example, a virus or worm attack (forms of malicious code). There may be difficulties in implementing real-time auditing, including unacceptable system performance.

    After-the-fact identification may indicate that unauthorized access was attempted (or was successful). Attention can then be given to damage assessment or reviewing controls that were attacked.

    Problem Analysis

    Audit trails may also be used as on-line tools to help identify problems other than intrusions as they occur. This is often referred to as real-time auditing or monitoring. If a system or application is deemed to be critical to an organization's business or mission, real-time auditing may be implemented to monitor the status of these processes (although, as noted above, there can be difficulties with real-time analysis). An analysis of the audit trails may be able to verify that the system operated normally (i.e., that an error may have resulted from operator error, as opposed to a system-originated error). Such use of audit trails may be complemented by system performance logs. For example, a significant increase in the use of system resources (e.g., disk file space or outgoing modem use) could indicate a security problem.


A system can maintain several different audit trails concurrently. There are typically two kinds of audit records, (1) an event-oriented log and (2) a record of every keystroke, often called keystroke monitoring. Event-based logs usually contain records describing system events, application events, or user events.

An audit trail should include sufficient information to establish what events occurred and who (or what) caused them. In general, an event record should specify when the event occurred, the user ID associated with the event, the program or command used to initiate the event, and the result. Date and time can help determine if the user was a masquerader or the actual person specified.

    Keystroke Monitoring

    Keystroke monitoring is the process used to view or record both the keystrokes entered by a computer user and the computer's response during an interactive session. Keystroke monitoring is usually considered a special case of audit trails. Examples of keystroke monitoring would include viewing characters as they are typed by users, reading users' electronic mail, and viewing other recorded information typed by users. (See the CSL Bulletin of March 1993, for guidance on the legality of keystroke monitoring.)

    Some forms of routine system maintenance may record user keystrokes. This could constitute keystroke monitoring if the keystrokes are preserved along with the user identification so that an administrator could determine the keystrokes entered by specific users. Keystroke monitoring is conducted in an effort to protect systems and data from intruders who access the systems without authority or in excess of their assigned authority. Monitoring keystrokes typed by intruders can help administrators assess and repair damage caused by intruders.

    Audit Events

    System audit records are generally used to monitor and fine-tune system performance. Application audit trails may be used to discern flaws in applications, or violations of security policy committed within an application. User audits records are generally used to hold individuals accountable for their actions. An analysis of user audit records may expose a variety of security violations, which might range from simple browsing to attempts to plant Trojan horses or gain unauthorized privileges.

    The system itself enforces certain aspects of policy (particularly system-specific policy) such as access to files and access to the system itself. Monitoring the alteration of systems configuration files that implement the policy is important. If special accesses (e.g., security administrator access) have to be used to alter configuration files, the system should generate audit records whenever these accesses are used.

    Sometimes a finer level of detail than system audit trails is required. Application audit trails can provide this greater level of recorded detail. If an application is critical, it can be desirable to record not only who invoked the application, but certain details specific to each use. For example, consider an e-mail application. It may be desirable to record who sent mail, as well as to whom they sent mail and the length of messages. Another example would be that of a database application. It may be useful to record who accessed what database as well as the individual rows or columns of a table that were read (or changed or deleted), instead of just recording the execution of the database program.

    A user audit trail monitors and logs user activity in a system or application by recording events initiated by the user (e.g., access of a file, record or field, use of a modem). Flexibility is a critical feature of audit trails. Ideally (from a security point of view), a system administrator would have the ability to monitor all system and user activity, but could choose to log only certain functions at the system level, and within certain applications. The decision of how much to log and how much to review should be a function of application/data sensitivity and should be decided by each functional manager/application owner with guidance from the system administrator and the computer security manager/officer, weighing the costs and benefits of the logging. Audit logging can have privacy implications; users should be aware of applicable privacy laws, regulations, and policies that may apply in such situations.

    System-Level Audit Trails

    If a system-level audit capability exists, the audit trail should capture, at a minimum, any attempt to log on (successful or unsuccessful), the log-on ID, date and time of each log-on attempt, date and time of each log-off, the devices used, and the function(s) performed once logged on (e.g., the applications that the user tried, successfully or unsuccessfully, to invoke). System-level logging also typically includes information that is not specifically security-related, such as system operations, cost-accounting charges, and network performance.

    Application-Level Audit Trails

    System-level audit trails may not be able to track and log events within applications, or may not be able to provide the level of detail needed by application or data owners, the system administrator, or the computer security manager. In general, application-level audit trails monitor and log user activities, including data files opened and closed, specific actions, such as reading, editing, and deleting records or fields, and printing reports. Some applications may be sensitive enough from a data availability, confidentiality, and/or integrity perspective that a "before" and "after" picture of each modified record (or the data element(s) changed within a record) should be captured by the audit trail.

    User Audit Trails

    User audit trails can usually log:

    • all commands directly initiated by the user;
    • all identification and authentication attempts; and
    • files and resources accessed.

    It is most useful if options and parameters are also recorded from commands. It is much more useful to know that a user tried to delete a log file (e.g., to hide unauthorized actions) than to know the user merely issued the delete command, possibly for a personal data file.


    Audit trail data requires protection, since the data should be available for use when needed and is not useful if it is not accurate. Also, the best planned and implemented audit trail is of limited value without timely review of the logged data. Audit trails may be reviewed periodically, as needed (often triggered by occurrence of a security event), automatically in real-time, or in some combination of these. System managers and administrators, with guidance from computer security personnel, should determine how long audit trail data will be maintained -- either on the system or in archive files.

    Following are examples of implementation issues that may have to be addressed when using audit trails.

      Protecting Audit Trail Data

      Access to on-line audit logs should be strictly controlled. Computer security managers and system administrators or managers should have access for review purposes; however, security and/or administration personnel who maintain logical access functions may have no need for access to audit logs.

      It is particularly important to ensure the integrity of audit trail data against modification. One way to do this is to use digital signatures. Another way is to use write-once devices. The audit trail files need to be protected since, for example, intruders may try to "cover their tracks" by modifying audit trail records. Audit trail records should be protected by strong access controls to help prevent unauthorized access. The integrity of audit trail information may be particularly important when legal issues arise, such as when audit trails are used as legal evidence. (This may, for example, require daily printing and signing of the logs.) Questions of such legal issues should be directed to the cognizant legal counsel.

      The confidentiality of audit trail information may also be protected, for example, if the audit trail is recording information about users that may be disclosure-sensitive such as transaction data containing personal information (e.g., "before" and "after" records of modification to income tax data). Strong access controls and encryption can be particularly effective in preserving confidentiality.

      Review of Audit Trails

      Audit trails can be used to review what occurred after an event, for periodic reviews, and for real-time analysis. Reviewers should know what to look for to be effective in spotting unusual activity. They need to understand what normal activity looks like. Audit trail review can be easier if the audit trail function can be queried by user ID, terminal ID, application name, date and time, or some other set of parameters to run reports of selected information.

      Audit Trail Review After an Event. Following a known system or application software problem, a known violation of existing requirements by a user, or some unexplained system or user problem, the appropriate system-level or application-level administrator should review the audit trails. Review by the application/data owner would normally involve a separate report, based upon audit trail data, to determine if their resources are being misused.

      Periodic Review of Audit Trail Data. Application owners, data owners, system administrators, data processing function managers, and computer security managers should determine how much review of audit trail records is necessary, based on the importance of identifying unauthorized activities. This determination should have a direct correlation to the frequency of periodic reviews of audit trail data.

      Real-Time Audit Analysis. Traditionally, audit trails are analyzed in a batch mode at regular intervals (e.g., daily). Audit records are archived during that interval for later analysis. Audit analysis tools can also be used in a real-time, or near real-time fashion. Such intrusion detection tools are based on audit reduction, attack signature, and variance techniques. Manual review of audit records in real-time is almost never feasible on large multiuser systems due to the volume of records generated. However, it might be possible to view all records associated with a particular user or application, and view them in real time. (This is similar to keystroke monitoring, though, and may be legally restricted.)

      Tools for Audit Trail Analysis

      Many types of tools have been developed to help to reduce the amount of information contained in audit records, as well as to distill useful information from the raw data. Especially on larger systems, audit trail software can create very large files, which can be extremely difficult to analyze manually. The use of automated tools is likely to be the difference between unused audit trail data and a robust program. Some of the types of tools include:

      Audit reduction tools are preprocessors designed to reduce the volume of audit records to facilitate manual review. Before a security review, these tools can remove many audit records known to have little security significance. (This alone may cut in half the number of records in the audit trail.) These tools generally remove records generated by specified classes of events, such as records generated by nightly backups might be removed.

      Trends/variance-detection tools look for anomalies in user or system behavior. It is possible to construct more sophisticated processors that monitor usage trends and detect major variations. For example, if a user typically logs in at 9 a.m., but appears at 4:30 a.m. one morning, this may indicate a security problem that may need to be investigated.

      Attack signature-detection tools look for an attack signature, which is a specific sequence of events indicative of an unauthorized access attempt. A simple example would be repeated failed log-in attempts.


    Audit trails involve many costs. First, some system overhead is incurred recording the audit trail. Additional system overhead will be incurred storing and processing the records. The more detailed the records, the more overhead is required. Another cost involves human and machine time required to do the analysis. This can be minimized by using tools to perform most of the analysis. Many simple analyzers can be constructed quickly (and cheaply) from system utilities, but they are limited to audit reduction and identifying particularly sensitive events. More complex tools that identify trends or sequences of events are slowly becoming available as off-the-shelf software. (If complex tools are not available for a system, development may be prohibitively expensive. Some intrusion detection systems, for example, have taken years to develop.)

    The final cost of audit trails is the cost of investigating anomalous events. If the system is identifying too many events as suspicious, administrators may spend undue time reconstructing events and questioning personnel.


    This bulletin summarizes a chapter in NIST Special Publication 800-12, Introduction to Computer Security: The NIST Handbook. The handbook is available electronically at: http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/nistpubs/800-12 in WordPerfect 6.1, MS Word, and PostScript formats. You can also order the handbook from the Government Printing Office at (202) 512-1800, stock number SN003-003-03374-0, price $18.00.


Last updated: February 24, 2003
Page created: August 26, 2000

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