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Why a CCTV type system is a necessity for Monitoring Network Traffic

CCTV for computer networks

Why monitor network traffic?

The recent Equifax security breach resulted in hackers getting their hands on the sensitive personal information of 143 million American consumers. The breach lasted from mid-May 2017 through July 2017. The hackers accessed people’s names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers. They also stole credit card numbers from about 209,000 people and dispute documents with personal identifying information from about 182,000 people; they also grabbed personal information of people in the UK and Canada.

This information was not carried in briefcases. It left the organization as a payload in network traffic, mixed in with the massive amounts of legitimate traffic that would have left Equifax during the hacking period. While it is good practice to have firewalls and threat detection systems, many of them rely on known signatures of exploit attempts. This approach fails if you are targeted with something new, or if your security applications are missing detection capabilities for a specific type of attack. This is one of the main reasons why you need to constantly monitor network traffic leaving and entering your network.

What is a CCTV system for monitoring network traffic?

When I talk about a CCTV type system for monitoring network traffic, I usually give this analogy. When we want to protect physical buildings, we invest in locks, gates, walls and other physical barriers to protect our property and physical assets.

We also invest in CCTV systems so that if there is a break in, we can see what is happening in real time and get recordings so we can look back over events. If you have a breach, it is important to know what happened so that we can make changes to prevent further breaches happening in the future. CCTV systems can also alert if someone enters a premises outside of normal working hours.

Monitoring network edge

Too often in the digital world, we forget about monitoring tools. Senior management often sees them as a ‘nice to have’ as there is no obvious payback. It is easy to get seduced into spending IT budgets on fancy firewalls and threat prevention systems as they can take an action. However, the Equifax hack has reminded us that we need eyes on our networks 24/7 and we need to keep historical records of who is connecting to what so that we can go back and see how someone hacked into our network.

network flows

A CCTV system for network traffic can be based on flow or packet analysis. If you use managed switches or if you have a router, you will have a data source. From this analysis, you need to be capturing information such as:

  • True application names as you cannot rely on port labels
  • Resource (URI) names
  • HTTP header fields
  • Web client information
  • DHCP data such as IP addresses, MAC and host-names
  • SMTP metadata such as email addresses and subject lines
  • BitTorrent Hash values
  • DNS SPAM detection
  • SMB and NFS metadata
  • Ingress and egress IP flows including IP addresses and port numbers
  • Associated GeoIP details
  • Packets counts
  • IP flow counts
  • Detect application layer attacks
  • Associated usernames
  • Accurate web domain names from DNS, HTTP or HTTPS traffic analysis

One of the most important things is that you get both a real-time and historical view of this data. Most network monitoring applications do real-time monitoring. Some do historical reporting but may age and compress data to cut down on disk usage. This is not ideal, as you will want to store as much detail as possible so that you can investigate historical events. Make sure you choose a forensics or monitoring application that retains all information captured.

Integrating IDS (Intrusion Detection System) and traffic analysis are also beneficial. This allows you to detect known attacks as well was providing extra context like what connections were made and if the attackers targeted any other systems on your network. You will only get good threat detection with packet analysis, flow (NetFlow, IPFIX, etc) will struggle as they don’t look at packet payloads.

Your monitoring tool needs to be independent of edge equipment

Many firewalls now come with advanced logging and reporting capabilities. On paper, they tick boxes for both prevention and reporting. However, if your network is under attack you may find that these logs become inaccessible.

Some time ago I attended a JANET conference in the UK. A number of universities had been targeted with DDoS attacks. Many network managers spoke about how they struggled to understand what was happening, as their firewall logs were inaccessible or were filling up so quickly it was difficult to get an overall view of where the DDoS traffic was coming from. One of the recommendations from the conference was to ensure your monitoring tools were independent of edge devices such as firewalls or routers.

Don’t wait for a breach before investing in monitoring tools

The worst way to implement monitoring tools is to do so in the middle of an attack. You will never capture all the information you need and you may be rushed into buying tools that don’t address your requirements. Get something in place ASAP and use the CCTV analogy when discussing with senior management.  In today’s world, you need to be watching over your network 24/7.