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Monitoring Linux Audit Logs with auditd and Auditbeat

The Linux Audit framework is a kernel feature (paired with userspace tools) that can log system calls. For example, opening a file, killing a process or creating a network connection. These audit logs can be used to monitor systems for suspicious activity.

In this post, we will configure rules to generate audit logs. First, we will use auditd to write logs to flat files. Then we’ll use Auditbeat to ship those logs through the Elasticsearch API: either to a local cluster or to Sematext Logs (aka Logsene, our log management solution). Along the way, we will search through the generated logs, create alerts, and generate requests.

Now, let’s dive into Linux audit logs!

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Audit Logs in Linux: A quick tutorial on using auditd

Audit logs are used to track suspicious activity, but what does “suspicious” actually mean? As with all logging, the answer will depend on both what we need and how much it costs.

For example, if you’re hosting websites, you may be interested in changes to document files. You may also be interested in accesses outside document root or privilege escalation. The list can always grow, but so will the cost.

Intercepting more system calls will add more CPU overhead, and storing more events for the same period will cost more. To strike a good balance, you’d first figure out what is needed, then think about how to implement it in a cost-effective way.

For this post, let’s say we want to track user management and changes to the system time. To implement this, we’ll track access to /etc/passwd and system calls to change time.

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Setting up auditd rules: Monitoring user management

The Linux Audit daemon (auditd) is the go-to application for tapping into the Linux Audit framework, which exists as its userspace component: auditd can subscribe to events from the kernel based on user-defined rules.

To create a rule for watching /etc/passwd, we’ll run this command as root:

auditctl -w /etc/passwd -p wra -k passwd

Let’s break it down:

  • auditctl defines and lists audit rules. It has a really nice man page that you can use as a reference, but we’ll call out the important bits here.
  • -w /etc/passwd starts a watcher on a file. When the file is accessed, the watcher will generate events.
  • -p wra specifies the permission type to watch for. “wra” adds up write, read and attribute change.
  • -k passwd is an optional key. Later on, we could search for this (arbitrary) passwd string to identify events tagged with this key.

Now that we’ve defined a rule, we can list the current rules to double-check that it was stored:

$ auditctl -l
LIST_RULES: exit,always watch=/etc/passwd perm=rwa key=passwd

Sure enough, our rule is there.

Viewing events in the audit log

At this point, if we do

cat /etc/passwd

we will see events in the audit log. By default, the location of the auditd log file is /var/log/audit/audit.log, though you can change this in /etc/audit/auditd.conf:

type=SYSCALL msg=audit(1522927552.749:917): arch=c000003e syscall=2 success=yes exit=3 a0=7ffe2ce05793 a1=0 a2=1fffffffffff0000 a3=7ffe2ce043a0 items=1 ppid=2906 pid=4668 auid=1000 uid=0 gid=0 euid=0 suid=0 fsuid=0 egid=0 sgid=0 fsgid=0 tty=pts4 ses=1 comm="cat" exe="/bin/cat" key="passwd"
type=CWD msg=audit(1522927552.749:917):  cwd="/root"
type=PATH msg=audit(1522927552.749:917): item=0 name="/etc/passwd" inode=3147443 dev=08:01 mode=0100644 ouid=0 ogid=0 rdev=00:00 nametype=NORMAL
type=UNKNOWN[1327] msg=audit(1522927552.749:917): proctitle=636174002F6574632F706173737764

Speaking of auditd.conf, you may wonder what kind of knobs auditd itself offers.

Most of them are about how auditd writes to its log file. Not only its path (log_file), but because audit logs are very sensitive, what auditd should do when the going gets tough. From rotating the logfile (how often? Specified via num_logs) to what to do when you run out of space: do nothing? generate a syslog message that could be sent over the network? shut down the system?

There are more low-level options, too. Like how often should the log be fsync()ed to disk (freq and flush). Auditd can also write to an external program (dispatcher) in a blocking or unblocking fashion. Unfortunately, you can’t change the log format, this is coming from the Kernel. The log_format option only allows you to choose between logging to the dispatcher only (NOLOG) or to the dispatcher (if any) and the log file.

The auditd.conf manual is very nice and descriptive about all the options.

“auditctl lets you define rules to watch file changes and other system calls. The same rule syntax is used in MetricBeat’s config file.”

Setting up auditd rules: Tracking system time changes

Let’s set up another rule for tracking changes to the system time:

auditctl -a exit,always -F arch=b64 -S clock_settime -k changetime

This command looks a bit different, because it tracks a specific system call (-S clock_settime). Let’s break it down as well:

  • -k changetime is the same optional tag for identifying the rule.
  • -S clock_settime specifies the system call. You can find the full list, along with the kernel version where each call was introduced, in the syscalls man page. Go to each system call to see its own man page. Back to our command, you can specify multiple -S parameters. This will watch for multiple system calls in one rule, lowering the audit overhead.
  • -a exit,always specifies the list to log to and the action. The exit,always combination is the most widely used. The exit list will produce an event when the system call exits. Other lists are task (when a task/process is created), user (to filter userspace calls based on user attributes), and exclude (for filtering out events). The always action timestamps and writes the record. This contrasts to never, which is used to override other rules. Note that rules are evaluated in order, so exclusion rules should be on top.
  • -F arch=b64 specifies a filter, defined by a key (arch), a value (b64) and an operator (=). This one filters only 64-bit architecture system calls. We need to specify it for the kernel to identify the clock_settime we want. You can filter by user id, use greater than (>) or less than (<) operators, and much more. You’ll find the whole list in auditctl’s man page. As with system calls (-S), you can specify multiple filter (-F) arguments to combine multiple filters.

With the above rule defined, if we change the system clock:

date --set "$NEWDATE"

We’ll see new entries in audit.log:

type=SYSCALL msg=audit(1522928030.508:2940): arch=c000003e syscall=227 success=yes exit=0 a0=0 a1=7ffe530e4db0 a2=1 a3=7ffe530e4b10 items=0 ppid=2906 pid=4745 auid=1000 uid=0 gid=0 euid=0 suid=0 fsuid=0 egid=0 sgid=0 fsgid=0 tty=pts4 ses=1 comm="date" exe="/bin/date" key="changetime"
type=UNKNOWN[1327] msg=audit(1522928030.508:2940): proctitle=64617465002D2D736574003330204D415220323031382031323A30303A3030

In these events, we don’t see the name of the system call (clock_settime), only its number (syscall=227). To see the mapping between system call numbers and their names, run ausyscall –dump. On this particular system, one of the lines was 227 clock_settime.

Searching and analyzing audit logs with ausearch and aureport

Now that we have some audit logs, let’s go ahead and analyze them. We can always use the likes of grep, but the Linux Audit System comes with a few handy binaries that already parse audit logs.

For example, ausearch can easily filter logs by the event key we defined with -k in our rules. Below you can see traces of when the changetime rule was added and when it was triggered by the date command.

$ ausearch -k changetime
time->Thu Apr  5 11:32:16 2018
type=CONFIG_CHANGE msg=audit(1522927936.343:2600): auid=1000 ses=1 op="add_rule" key="changetime" list=4 res=1
time->Thu Apr  5 11:33:50 2018
type=UNKNOWN[1327] msg=audit(1522928030.508:2940): proctitle=64617465002D2D736574003330204D415220323031382031323A30303A3030
type=SYSCALL msg=audit(1522928030.508:2940): arch=c000003e syscall=227 success=yes exit=0 a0=0 a1=7ffe530e4db0 a2=1 a3=7ffe530e4b10 items=0 ppid=2906 pid=4745 auid=1000 uid=0 gid=0 euid=0 suid=0 fsuid=0 egid=0 sgid=0 fsgid=0 tty=pts4 ses=1 comm="date" exe="/bin/date" key="changetime"

For a more condensed view of audit events, aureport comes in handy. For example, we can use -f to filter only the file-related events:

$ aureport -f
File Report
# date time file syscall success exe auid event
1. 05.04.2018 11:25:52 /etc/passwd 2 yes /bin/cat 1000 917
2. 30.03.2018 12:14:34 /etc/passwd 2 yes /usr/bin/vim.basic 1000 2941
3. 30.03.2018 12:14:34 /etc/passwd 2 yes /usr/bin/vim.basic 1000 2942
4. 30.03.2018 12:14:34 /etc/passwd 89 no /usr/bin/vim.basic 1000 2943
5. 30.03.2018 12:14:34 /etc/passwd 2 yes /usr/bin/vim.basic 1000 2944

Using Auditbeat to centralize Linux audit logs with Elasticsearch/Sematext Logs

Using the standard tools of the Linux Audit System is usually enough for monitoring a single system. Larger deployments will benefit from centralizing audit logs (as they do for all logs). By shipping audit logs to Elasticsearch, or to Sematext Logs, our log management tool exposing the Elasticsearch API, we are able to get a better overview of all hosts. Searches and aggregations will also scale better with the volume of audit logs.

Auditbeat is the tool of choice for shipping Linux Audit System logs to Elasticsearch. It replaces auditd as the recipient of events – though we’ll use the same rules – and push data to Elasticsearch/Sematext Logs instead of a local file.

To install Auditbeat, we’ll use repositories. For example, on Ubuntu:

wget -qO - | sudo apt-key add -
sudo apt-get install apt-transport-https
echo "deb stable main" | sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list.d/elastic-6.x.list
sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get install auditbeat

Next, we’ll edit /etc/auditbeat/auditbeat.yml to configure Auditbeat. Here’s an example config file that uses the same rules for watching /etc/passwd and changing system time:

- module: auditd
  audit_rules: |
    -a exit,always -F arch=b64 -S clock_settime -k changetime
    -w /etc/passwd -p wra -k passwd
setup.template.enabled: false
  hosts: [""]

Rules previously set with auditctl now go under the audit_rules key of Auditbeat’s auditd module.  Like with Filebeat, to send data to Sematext Logs instead of a local Elasticsearch, you’d use as the endpoint and your Sematext Logs App token as the index name.

Since Auditbeat replaces auditd, we’ll have to stop/disable auditd before starting Auditbeat:

service auditd stop
service auditbeat restart

Viewing audit events in Kibana

An audit event (such as the previous cat /etc/passwd) will emit a JSON to Elasticsearch/Sematext Logs that looks like this:

  "@timestamp": "2018-03-30T12:36:07.710Z",
  "user": {
    "sgid": "0",
    "fsuid": "0",
    "gid": "0",
    "name_map": {
      "egid": "root",
      "sgid": "root",
      "suid": "root",
      "uid": "root",
      "auid": "radu",
      "fsgid": "root",
      "fsuid": "root",
      "gid": "root",
      "euid": "root"
    "fsgid": "0",
    "uid": "0",
    "egid": "0",
    "auid": "1000",
    "suid": "0",
    "euid": "0"
  "process": {
    "ppid": "2906",
    "title": "cat /etc/passwd",
    "name": "cat",
    "exe": "/bin/cat",
    "cwd": "/root",
    "pid": "5373"
  "file": {
    "device": "00:00",
    "inode": "3147443",
    "mode": "0644",
    "owner": "root",
    "path": "/etc/passwd",
    "uid": "0",
    "gid": "0",
    "group": "root"
  "beat": {
    "version": "6.2.3",
    "name": "radu-laptop",
    "hostname": "radu-laptop"
  "tags": [
  "auditd": {
    "summary": {
      "actor": {
        "primary": "radu",
        "secondary": "root"
      "object": {
        "primary": "/etc/passwd",
        "type": "file"
      "how": "/bin/cat"
    "paths": [
        "dev": "08:01",
        "nametype": "NORMAL",
        "rdev": "00:00",
        "inode": "3147443",
        "item": "0",
        "mode": "0100644",
        "name": "/etc/passwd",
        "ogid": "0",
        "ouid": "0"
    "sequence": 3029,
    "result": "success",
    "session": "1",
    "data": {
      "a0": "7ffea3df0793",
      "tty": "pts4",
      "a3": "7ffea3dee890",
      "syscall": "open",
      "a1": "0",
      "exit": "3",
      "arch": "x86_64",
      "a2": "1fffffffffff0000"
  "event": {
    "category": "audit-rule",
    "type": "syscall",
    "action": "opened-file",
    "module": "auditd"

“ausearch and aureport allow you to explore logs collected via auditd. MetricBeat can collect the same logs and push them to Elasticsearch/Logsene.”

Once data is in, we can search or set up Kibana visualizations. For example, which commands generated audit events:

auditd kibana
auditd kibana

With Sematext, you can also set up alerts when saving a query:

auditd logsene alert
auditd logsene alert

Next Steps & Summary

If you followed all the way down here, congratulations! Either way, let’s summarize:

  • the Linux Audit System has rich audit capabilities, letting you track all system calls right from the kernel.
  • auditd can listen to and log all audit events based on a set of rules defined via auditctl. You can use ausearch and aureport to drill through the local audit log.
  • Auditbeat can replace auditd and listen to the same events, following rules defined in the same auditctl format. It will convert these events into JSON and push them to Elasticsearch/Sematext. There, you can run searches, create alerts, and reports based on data from multiple hosts.

That being said, the Linux Audit System isn’t the only way to audit… systems 🙂 Here are some complementary frameworks:

  • Auditbeat itself has a file integrity module. You can use it to set up file watchers, much like we did here with the auditd module. Being a higher-level feature, it’s often less efficient. For example, it has to scan for new files on startup. The upside is that it will work on Windows and OSX as well, not only on Linux.
  • Bro is a framework geared towards network analysis, aiming to bridge the gap between academia and operations. Read more about Bro and how to ship Bro Logs to Elasticsearch/Sematext.
  • Falco is, roughly said, the userspace equivalent of auditd. It can give you richer information, but it’s going to be easier to disable. Of course, there’s much more to it than that, so if you’re curious, read more on Falco and how it compares to auditd, but also enforcing frameworks, such as SELinux and AppArmor.
  • Wazuh and Moloch are also IDS frameworks, focused on file integrity and network monitoring respectively. Both are integrated with Elasticsearch, so you can ship this information to Sematext as well, using the same API.

Stay tuned for more tutorials helpful guides! Here are some that might help you further:

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