I have recently become very familiar with IBM Site Protector. As I understand things, Site Protector is in the top tier of IPS/IDS systems, used by some of the largest Fortune 500 companies.

I was surprised to see the high amount of false positives and the overall lack of tags that may be specific to indicating a targeted attack.

I saw a network security analyst reporting many alerts raised that could be suspicious such as those relating to SQL Injection. These dismissed by the analyst as false positives. When inquiring as to how this could be ascertained in the software, I was told there were no further specific labels/alert types to investigate.

Since there seem to be a lack of specific alerts, I have to wonder how useful IDS software at the highest level is at detecting specialized targeted attacks.

To clarify the type of attack I am talking about, I will give an example:

  • Port scans against a specific target
  • SQL injection attempts against a specific target
  • Credentials obtained such as from obtaining them from a database via succusfull SQL injection
  • SSH installed or remote shell established. Some type of remote interface that should not be typical for the target.
  • Other anomalous behavior, such as large amounts of traffic over non-standard ports from the target.

From what I witnessed the SQL_Injection alert did not even show the parameters in the URL, only the file name in the URL, so it would be hard to even see if SQL Injection took place.

If there are no alerts to that would show the activity in the attack scenario above, and most SQL Injection and even buffer overflow alerts tend to be dismissed as a false positive(when even one instance could be a successful attack), how useful is using an IDS to detect such an attack?

  • @AviD - Why remove the targeted attack tag? The question is specific to targeted attacks. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 23:24
  • Sonny, please see these Meta-SO posts, regarding tagging: meta.stackexchange.com/a/32041/135923 and meta.stackexchange.com/a/18879/135923. Please try not to create a new tag for every single question...
    – AviD
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 0:10
  • I'm not sure I understand the question. Can you extend it to clarify what definition of a targeted attack you are using? Targeted, in what sense? In addition, can you give an example or two of something you would consider a targeted attack, and something you wouldn't? Also, what is the relevance of SQL injection in particular (as opposed to any of a gazillion other kinds of attacks)? And what do you mean by a "tag" and "an NSA"? Apparently, I have failed to understand what you are asking, so you may want to err on the side of over-explaining.
    – D.W.
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 1:31
  • @D.w. Would you prefer I clarify in comments? If I change the question it may void your answer. Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 20:43
  • 1
    This is just my opinion, but it's been my experience that ALL IDSes are exceptionally bad at detecting attack vectors.
    – tylerl
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 22:55

2 Answers 2


Disclaimer. IBM Site Protector is proprietary, so I cannot answer specific questions about it. But I'll share my impression of network-based IDS/IPS systems, in general.

Effectiveness at detecting certain attacks. You asked about how effective IDSs are at detecting certain specific kinds of attacks:

  • Port scans. I'd expect IDS systems to be pretty effective at detecting most port scans. (It is a separate question whether it is useful to detect port scans.)

  • SQL scans. I'd expect IDS systems to be effective at detecting basic SQL injection attack attempts, e.g., where someone is poking at your server in a simple way. I would not expect them to be effective at detecting sophisticated SQL injection attacks. It is possible to build SQL injection exploits that evade detection by IDSs.

  • Credentials obtained. This is too broad; I don't know what path for obtaining credentials you had in mind, so I don't know how to answer it. If you are talking about attackers trying to get access to a web application by guessing usernames and passwords, I would not expect a network-based IDS to detect those attacks.

  • Installation of SSH. I don't know whether IDSs detect installation of SSH. I'm not clear on how they would distinguish an attacker who maliciously turns on a SSH server vs a sysadmin who turns on a SSH server for legitimate purposes. This seems like something you could test yourself easily.

  • Remote shell. I would not expect an IDS to be effective at detecting most remote shells. Perhaps sometimes, but once the attacker has the ability to run code on your machine, it is too easy for them to craft their own custom method for remote access that an IDS won't detect. It is possible that some common cases can be detected; I don't know, and don't have enough experience to know.

  • Other anomalous behavior. To the best of my knowledge, current network-based IDSs usually don't try to detect anomalies in general. Rather, it is more typical to have a signature of specific attack methods that have been observed in the wild. In other words, they try to detect known attacks, rather than unknown ones.

    Detecting anomalies is quite challenging, and usually leads to many false positives. For instance, if you suddenly start seeing a lot more traffic somewhere, how do you distinguish the case where you just got Slashdotted (and this is legitimate traffic) from the case where you've had a security breach (and this is illegitimate traffic)? In the general case, it can get pretty tricky.

There's one more you didn't mention, but which I think is important:

  • Configuration errors. Configuration mistakes are one significant source of security problems. Examples include running an old piece of software with a known vulnerability and failing to update it, or inadvertently opening a hole in the firewall that exposed a vulnerable service. This is the sort of mistake that an IDS can really help with, by detecting attempts to exploit the vulnerable/misconfigured application.

Additionally, after a security breach occurs, an IDS may make it easier to conduct a forensic examination of the damage done, if it keeps good logs.

Information shown in alerts. The last question you asked has to do with what information is shown in the alert. That's a different question from whether the IDS can detect the attack in the first place. I would guess that most users of IDSs are not in a position to usefully interpret all the technical details of an exploit, so for most users, showing those kinds of details might not be so useful. As far as what information is shown to the user in an alert, that's a user interface question that is going to be dependent upon the specific product, so if this is something that is important to you, I suggest that you ask for a trial of the products you are considering and evaluate this aspect.

Targeted attacks. A quick note: very little of the information above is specific to targeted attacks against your particular company or against a particular machine at your company. The answers for non-targeted attacks are roughly the same (though it is possible an IDS might be somewhat more effective for non-targeted attacks than for targeted attacks).

How useful is an IDS? I don't know if you're going to find an authoritative answer to this question. It is pretty subjective. Personally, I think it is not clear how useful an IDS is, and my impression is that IDSs are often overhyped. My feeling is that IDS's tend to be best at two things: (1) detecting some common, low-sophistication attacks, (2) detecting breaches caused by configuration errors.

I don't recommend IDSs as the primary means of defending your systems. However, there is a plausible argument IDSs might have some value as a secondary defense, e.g., to catch inadvertent configuration errors that open up some hole that your other defenses didn't stop. Whether the IDS makes sense for you is something you'll have to judge for yourself, but generally speaking, an IDS isn't one of the first few things I'd prioritize if I were creating a security program from scratch.

Why use an IDS? Your reaction at this point might be, wait, if IDSs are not so useful, why does anyone use them?

I think one major factor is: an IDS is easy to deploy. You just plug the thing into your network, and you're ready to go. You don't have to push software to your end users, you don't have to update firewall policies, and you don't have to deploy security restrictions that might block legitimate traffic. It feels like a no-pain solution to the security headache.

A possible secondary reason for deployment of IDSs/IPSs is: compliance and checklists. If you have an IDS, you can check it off with your auditor, and if there's a security breach, you'll have some CYA protection with your corporate executives (well, we deployed a state-of-the-art IDS, we did everything we could have). This exploits the fact that a non-technical audience is likely to assume that an Intrusion Prevention System is something that will reliably prevent intrusions.

A third possible reason is: IDSs produce reports, lots of reports, with graphs and pretty charts. Managers likes reports: it helps them feel like they can "manage" security and get a feeling for how they are doing. Also, sometimes security teams like these reports, too: they can be helpful in arguing to upper management why the company really needs to invest in security defenses (we had 10,000 attacks in January alone! we really need to put a firewall in place).

  • Fantastic answer, thanks! Just a note I've clarified 2 things in my question, 1 was credentials being obtained and the other was changing "SQL_Scans" to "SQL Injection attempts". Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 2:21
  • I also will note that there seems to be some varying definitions of targeted attack. I've always used targeted attack to mean an attack against a specific host/network via specific vectors, while a distributed attack is against multiple, unspecific hosts. For example, exploiting a BO attack to gain a remote shell and a drive by download respectively. Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 2:25

IDSs will probably be about as effective at detecting targeted attacks as non-targeted attacks.

I wonder if there might be some misunderstanding about what a "targeted attack" is. The difference between a targeted attack and a non-targeted attack is in whether the attacker tries hacking everyone or hacking just you. Targeted vs non-targeted is orthogonal from which technical method the attacker chooses to use in the attack.

Generally speaking, IDS is best used for detecting common, low-sophistication attacks.

However, a sophisticated attacker can readily evade an IDS. Custom attacks are not likely to be detected by an IDS. Also, an IDS is not likely to detect advanced persistent threats (APTs). And, a network-level IDS is not likely to be very good at detecting spear phishing: e.g., targeted malicious emails, targeted attacks through social networks, and that sort of thing. Email-based vectors probably need to be detected at your mailserver, not by something that monitors your network. Web-based vectors are even harder for a network monitor to detect.

Generally speaking, I don't recommend relying upon an IDS as your primary line of defense. It's OK as a secondary defense to catch some things that you might not have stopped with your primary defenses, but you shouldn't use an IDS as your only defense. Your primary defense should use other methods (e.g., firewalls, software updating/patching, system configuration and administration, user education, good software development practices).

  • There are other difference between targeted attack and a distrusted attack other than just the number of targets. An individual targeting a machine will try various attacks specific to the software on that machine, and if successful there should be some indication such as files being transferred, a reverse shell, something. My point/question is that an IDS does not seem to show this. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 23:23
  • Non-targeted attacks also frequently adjust to the software on each target machine. It is common practice for attackers to port-scan the space of potential targets, then connect to each server to get version strings, and then try an appropriate set of attacks based upon those results. There are many hacker tools to automate this process.
    – D.W.
    Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 23:28
  • sure, but that is beside my point and question. I'm asking about the effectiveness in a specific scenario. The effectiveness outside of that scenario is not relevant to my question. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 23:29
  • @SonnyOrdell, OK, perhaps I did not understand your question; based upon your responses, I'm not sure I understand what you are really looking for. If it sounds like that might be the case, my apologies -- and you might consider editing/updating the question to clarify and provide more context.
    – D.W.
    Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 0:28
  • I'm unsure what is unclear about my question. I give the example of a targeted attack that exploited an sql injection vulnerability, and eventually led to a remote shell/files transferred etc. Something non standard. It seems an IDS can't do much more than detect something as "SQL Injection" with a high false positive rate. Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 0:51

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