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Security Data Visualization Paperback – Sep 24 2007
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About the Author
Greg Conti, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., has been featured in IEEE Security and Privacy magazine, the Communications of the ACM, and IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications magazine. He has spoken at a wide range of academic and hacker conferences, including Black Hat, DEFCON and the Workshop on Visualization for Computer Security (VizSEC). Conti runs the open source security visualization project, RUMINT, http://www.rumint.org/.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I give five star reviews to books that meet certain criteria. First, the book should change the way I look at a problem, or properly introduce me to thinking about a problem for which I have little or no frame of reference. Although I have been a security analyst for ten years, I have little visualization experience. Author Greg Conti spent just the right amount of time explaining the field, describing key terms (preattentive processing, occlusion, brushing) and displays (star plots, small multiples, TreeMaps). I loved the author's mention of Ben Shneiderman's visualization mantra: "overview first, zoom and filter, details on demand" (p 14).
Second, a five star book should have few or no technical errors. SDV was as sound as they come, at least as far as the security and networking information goes. I can't comment on the author's synthesis of the visualization community. I also liked the case studies in Chs 3, 4, and 5. I liked reading the visualization methodology introduced in the chapter on analyzing firewall logs (Ch 7).
Third, a five star book will make the material actionable. I finished SDV thinking I could try at least some of what I read on my own network. Ch 10 talked about how to build your own visualization tool. I would have liked additional detail on using some of the tools in the book, so perhaps a future edition will expand on that point.
A fourth feature of great books is including current research and referencing outside sources. SDV cited many foundational papers and presentations on visualization in general and security visualization specifically. Chs 6 and 12 addressed these subjects in detail. Ch 11 presented readers with ideas for future projects.
Overall, it should be obvious I really enjoyed reading SDV. My only real complaint seems inherent to the field: how to analyze large data sets. The case study in Ch 5 ("One Night on My ISP") only looks at 303 packets. It is easy to dismiss it since there's hardly any data to analyze. However, I feel that the author's techniques can be creatively scaled if one maintains realistic expectations. SDV is an excellent introduction to the security visualization field and I hope to see other works from the author and others on this important topic.
Before we get into the review, I'll disclose that I know the author and he gave me a review copy. I don't think this makes it easier for the author to get a good review, in fact, I think it makes it harder because I expect a lot from the author. Its his fault I'm into computer and information security and I have taken courses that he taught, so he had high expectations to meet.
The first three chapters, An Overview of Information Visualization, The Beauty of Binary File Visualization, and Port Scan Visualization give you all the background you need to get started and introduce you to the author's visualization tool, RUMINT. It was interesting to see the difference between nmap and unicornscan and paves the way to create signatures for all types of port scanners based on their default behavior. Chapter 4, Vulnerability Assessment and Exploitation, walks us through analyzing a dataset with an attack using the Metasploit Framework, very interesting and shows us that even with metasploit's built-in IDS evasion, in the end it must create sockets and connections and those can be seen with visualization tools (with the proper tweaking and analysis). I read the sample chapter available (CH 5, One Night on My ISP) before I read the whole book, and it was certainly easier to follow after reading the previous chapters. I think it gives you a good taste of what you can do with security visualization tools and what the book can teach you but can be hard to follow without the background material in the previous chapters. Chapter 6, A Survey of Security Visualization, gives us an overview of how other security researchers are solving security problems with different types of visualization. Chapters 7 (Firewall Log Visualization) & 8 (Intrusion Detection Log Visualization) written by the guest author Raffy Marty uses his tool "AfterGlow" to examine firewall logs and Treemaps to try to organize the volumes of IDS data. Chapter 9, Attacking and Defending Visualization Systems, shows us some sample attacks that attackers could use to thwart security visualization tools. The occlusion and windshield wiper attacks were interesting as well as the idea of using graphical attacks to send images to the analyst. Chapters 10-12, Creating a Security Visualization System, Unexplored Territory & Teaching Yourself, closes out the book with discussions and thoughts on building your own security visualization tools, areas of future research and obviously ways to help teach yourself security visualization.
Some likes and dislikes. I liked that the author regularly points us to background material and extra reading for every section. Each section could pretty much be a book in itself so links to more reading and current research was helpful for the specific areas that peeked my interest. I really liked that the book was in color, I don't see the book being near as effective in black and white. I liked the guest author's take on visualization, it was nice to get a second opinion in the same book and it was extremely nice that they didn't cover the same material like a lot of books that have multiple authors seem to do. Lastly, I liked that the author had created his own tool to do some of the visualization and that its freely available on the tool's site. I was able to get up and running with RUMINT from the material in the book and the how-to on the site.
For dislikes, it would have been nice to have access to some of the scripts mentioned in the book. Hopefully the author will post those on his site. I didn't care for the font of the book, Times New Roman, small times new roman font got a little tiresome of reading after a chapter or two (minor gripe)
Overall, a great book and highly recommended to anyone interested in getting started with security visualization.
I particularly liked the examples in Chapter 3 comparing visual representations of port scans from Nmap and the Unicornscan. The differences between the two port scans stood out very clearly even before reading the corresponding explanation.
I also enjoyed the hands-on examples of dissecting visual representations of Nessus and Metasploit attacks in Chapter 4. Among the other things I liked about the book were the examples of using TreeMaps to visualize alert logs from Snort and to perform detailed analysis of alerts described in Chapter 8. (Make sure you read the first chapter because it explains many of the fundamental concepts.)
Also, for those who like reading chapters out-of-order (like myself :) - to save time, I'd recommend reading the first three chapters before reading anything else. I found that it is much easier to understand the rest of the examples in the book that way.
Overall, the book provides practical insights into a very interesting emerging area of information security--security data visualization. I would recommend this book to all security professionals.
This title is not without its drawbacks, which unfortunately are numerous. In writing Security Data Visualization, Mr. Conti seems to have lacked a clear opinion regarding the identity of his average reader. From the title, it might seem that this would be an advanced/applied topics book on Computer Security, which would imply an assumed basic knowledge level of the reader. Some chapters seem to make this assumption and waste no time getting to the heart of the matter associated with their chapter titles, whereas others get bogged down with extremely unnecessary levels of detail regarding information that does not belong in a book like this. As an example of several sections of this nature, nearly half of Chapter 3, entitled "Port Scans," is spent explaining TCP/IP and the OSI seven layer model. These are topics that a majority of readers would need as prerequisite knowledge in order even to be interested in a book like this, and this inconsistent scope of information hinders the already short book by wasting pages on topics that do not directly relate to the title. The book also frequently falls victim to favoring 'what' over 'why' in explaining most topics. All too often chapters fail to rationalize design decisions, or why certain visualizations were used in conjunction with specific applications. In writing the first book for this field, it would have been much more beneficial to have the text read more like a tutorial than a proof of concept.
However, the most glaring problem with this book involves deception of the reader. In Chapter 5 "One Night on My ISP", the author introduces a Security Visualization program called RUMINT which is a tool to visualize network packets, and juxtaposes it with heavyweight open-source security tools such as Wireshark and nmap. What is not to be found anywhere in the book other than in an image caption in Chapter 11, and in a few small words on the back cover, is that RUMINT was written by the author and is not a community standard like the programs it is presented alongside. Further investigation into RUMINT at its project website ([...] shows it is written in the obsolete Visual Basic 6 language and requires Microsoft Office as well as an expensive 3rd party component called PacketX to be installed in order to compile. Its use of the PacketX library also probably makes RUMINT illegally licensed with the Creative Commons version of the GPL it is published under. In addition, the software has several limitations and is incomplete, being nowhere near the level of maturity that the Wireshark or nmap projects have achieved over the years of community revision. If the author had stated anywhere in the text that he was using his own tool in order to illustrate a concept, all of the above would have been excusable. RUMINT is used throughout the book, and this is not the only example of selective omission in Security Data Visualization. Two chapters that cover firewall log visualization and intrusion detection system log visualization, and were written by his colleague Raffael Marty, who uses these chapters to anonymously promote his own software package called Afterglow. The lack of disclosure regarding the origins of these programs results in a serious loss of trust in the author. Omissions of this nature, especially in a book related to information assurance, are very difficult to forgive.
Despite all of this criticism, Security Data Visualization is a must-have for any computer security professional's bookshelf. The abilities this book will add to your toolkit, such as being able to look at a visualization of your network traffic, and then being able to not only eyeball that you are being portscanned, but identify the specific program the attacker is using is nothing short of incredible. Each page is printed in full color on semi-gloss paper, presenting the wealth of visualizations and diagrams the way they were meant to be seen. Aside from covering most common network security topics in a completely new light, the book constantly reminds the reader of the youth of this niche field and provides ideas and suggestions for future work. With this book Mr. Conti has definitely succeeded in creating a groundbreaking title, and with some revisions and a second edition he almost certainly will succeed in creating a classic.
As previously mentioned, the author has serious trouble maintaining focus on his intended audience, and spends far too much time providing security basics, when the audience who will understand the significance of this book will be intermediate/advanced security people.
The entire book is only 230 pages including images, and can easily be read in an afternoon or two. Without images, it clocks in at well under 200 pages. Many of the chapters ended prematurely, when the information was just starting to get really interesting.
Many of the images really could have been done better. For example, in several screenshots he shows packet traces in rumint, but it's impossible to tell which source and destination packets are which, because he uses 192.168.1.1 and 192.168.1.2 as his IP addresses, whereas designating one box in the 10.x range and another in the 192.168.x range would have illustrated his point much better. Several of the color choices in his statistical analyses were far too similar for easy distinction (blue and dark gray against a black background? Really?).
I did find his treeview analyses of snort logs very interesting and useful, and the chapter on analyzing firewall logs and how to determine how to parse the logs was really good.
In all, it's not a bad book, but it's clear that this author has much knowledge to impart, and I'm disappointed that more of it didn't make it into this book.