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File Integrity Monitoring: Definition, Benefits and Key Features

File integrity monitoring  is crucial for the security of an organization’s information systems, as well as for regulatory compliance. This article will explore what file integrity monitoring is and help you find the right file integrity monitoring software solution for your organization.

What Is File Integrity Monitoring?

File integrity monitoring (FIM) is a critical part of an enterprise’s data-centric security strategy. FIM is the process of auditing all attempts to access or modify files and folders containing sensitive information, and checking whether the activity is legitimate, authorized, and in alignment with business and legal protocols. By proactively detecting inappropriate and unauthorized changes and access events, you can minimize security breaches. Accordingly, FIM is a requirement of many compliance regulations.

File Integrity Monitoring and the CIA Triad

The CIA triad refers to the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data:

  • Confidentiality — Limiting access to sensitive data to authorized parties
  • Integrity — Ensuring that data remains accurate, consistent, and trustworthy throughout its life cycle
  • Availability — Making sure the IT infrastructure is smoothly operational and free from bottlenecks, internal system conflicts and any other issues that might disrupt access to critical files

As its name suggests, file integrity monitoring pertains directly to the integrity piece of a data security strategy.

Why You Need File Integrity Monitoring

FIM helps organizations detect improper changes to critical files on their systems, which reduces the risk of data being stolen or compromised, which would cost you time and money in lost productivity, lost revenue, reputation damage, and legal and compliance penalties.

Core FIM Functionality

When looking for a FIM solution, be sure to consider how well each tool delivers on each of the primary objectives of FIM.

Change Management

A FIM solution should improve data security by continuously monitoring both of the following:

  • Changes to your organization’s critical files and folders.
  • Changes to your file system configuration. It should enable you to easily compare the current configuration of a system to your organization’s baseline or other known good state.

Threat Detection

A FIM solution should improve your threat intelligence and intrusion detection. It should facilitate the processes of monitoring user activity and reviewing access permissions so you can maintain the security model of least privilege. If a user initiates a suspicious access attempt or makes inappropriate changes to sensitive files, a systems administrator can quickly mitigate this vulnerability by removing that user’s access privileges.

Compliance Auditing

FIM is required or recommended by many regulatory standards, including the following:

  • HIPAA recommends continuously auditing data security and access controls as a best practice.
  • FISMA specifies file integrity monitoring as one of its core requirements.
  • NIST encourages incorporating real-time FIM as part of a baseline data security policy.
  • The NERC CIP implementation guidance document requires FIM capabilities.
  • PCI DSS requires integrity monitoring for awareness of suspicious changes to critical data and system files, along with file comparisons on a weekly basis at minimum.

File Integrity Monitoring Software

You can implement file integrity monitoring either by investing in a standalone FIM tool or by leveraging your existing suite of IT monitoring tools and resources. Here are the key benefits and drawbacks to each approach.

Using a Standalone FIM Tool

Purchasing and deploying a dedicated solution can offer you the assurance that you have all your FIM bases covered. It may seem like a simple and obvious way to demonstrate your FIM compliance to executive management or regulatory auditors, but there are several notable concerns with dedicated FIM solutions that you’ll want to be aware of:

  • High costs — According to Gartner research, organizations find standalone FIM tools to be expensive in relation to the practical features that they provide. In fact, many organizations report using only a small subset of their FIM tool’s capabilities. The most commonly used capabilities include change monitoring and reporting.
  • Alert fatigue — Standalone FIM tools are complex products that must be deployed correctly to provide accurate monitoring. Faulty deployments can result in the FIM tool reporting both authorized and unauthorized changes as security concerns. The constant stream of false positives causes significant operational challenges and inefficiencies, and security teams may miss real threats buries in all the noise.

Achieving FIM through Integrated Technologies

Another option is to implement FIM through an integrated approach rather than a single costly tool. With this approach, you think of FIM not as an isolated endeavor but as an organic extension of your overall information security strategy. These are the key capabilities that you need for effective file integrity monitoring:

  • Auditing of file changes across servers, including file creation, modification and deletion. This simplifies log management by providing details into who changed what, and when and where each change occurred, all in a human-readable format.
  • Regular monitoring and analysis of effective permissions to ensure access rights are granted according to the least-privilege principle.
  • Monitoring of system configuration changes to ensure your applications, services and cloud network remain uncompromised and meet your baseline criteria.

Netwrix solutions provide a powerful suite of capabilities for implementing file integrity monitoring as part of maintaining the overall information security posture of your organization. Specifically, Netwrix Auditor is a comprehensive monitoring solution that helps you quickly identify attacks and mistakes that threaten data integrity. Netwrix Data Classification enables you to identify your critical, sensitive and regulated data, so you can prioritize your monitoring activities based on the sensitivity level of each file. Together, these solutions provide not just all the core capabilities needed for file integrity monitoring, but broad data-centric security and easier regulatory compliance.

Jeff is a Director of Global Solutions Engineering at Netwrix. He is a long-time Netwrix blogger, speaker, and presenter. In the Netwrix blog, Jeff shares lifehacks, tips and tricks that can dramatically improve your system administration experience.