What is Network Traffic Analysis (NTA)?

Network traffic analysis (NTA) monitors traffic flowing over the network and can tip off an organization of a potential cyberattack on the network infrastructure.

Network traffic analysis is the process of capturing, inspecting, and analyzing network data packets to gain insights into the behavior, performance, and security of a computer network. It involves examining the patterns, protocols, and volume of data flowing through a network to understand how devices and systems communicate with each other.

The process allows network administrators, security professionals, and analysts to monitor network performance, detect network security threats, troubleshoot network issues, understand network usage, and gather information for compliance and auditing. This article focuses on the use of NTA in cybersecurity.

Network Traffic Analysis (NTA) Datasheet

Why Companies Need an NTA Solution to Bolster Cybersecurity

As organizations evolve their infrastructure based on digital transformation efforts, networks are increasingly becoming more complex and operating in hybrid multi-cloud environments. This has led to a larger threat landscape with more security gaps. Threat actors can more easily perform reconnaissance, lateral movement, communicate with external systems, and deliver malicious payloads or exfiltrate data. Log data, endpoint solutions, and other telemetry are not suited to exposing these kinds of attack patterns or abnormal activity that are part of an overall active attack campaign.

Network traffic analysis solutions serve as a proactive defense mechanism, enabling organizations to identify, respond to, and mitigate cyber threats effectively. By continuously monitoring and analyzing network traffic, companies can spot unusual or suspicious patterns that indicate potential security incidents. For example, quickly identifying traffic going to a known external malicious domain gives administrators the opportunity to break that connection and prevent the download of malware.

NTA also provides visibility into unknown and undetected network threats based on risky abnormal behavior. This gives organizations the opportunity to strengthen their cybersecurity posture and protect their critical assets from various attacks.

What is the Goal of Analyzing and Monitoring Network Traffic for Cyber Threats?

The goal of analyzing and monitoring network traffic for cyber threats is to enhance an organization’s cybersecurity defenses. This is done by having another layer of threat detection; getting an early warning of threats before they can cause damage; getting valuable insights to assist with incident response; gathering evidence for attack attribution; and identifying vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the network infrastructure.

 

How NTA Works

Network traffic analysis involves monitoring and examining the data flowing through a computer network to gain insights into its behavior, performance, and security. It typically follows these general steps:

  1. Data Collection: Network traffic is collected from various sources, such as network devices (routers, switches) or network monitoring tools. This data includes packet-level information such as source and destination IP addresses, port numbers, protocol types, and payload data.
  2. Data Capture: Network traffic is captured using specialized software or hardware devices, such as network analyzers, packet sniffers, or intrusion detection systems. These tools capture packets traversing the network and store them for analysis.
  3. Data Filtering and Processing: The captured data is filtered to focus on relevant information. Filtering criteria may include specific IP addresses, protocols, ports, or other attributes of interest. This step reduces the amount of data that needs to be analyzed and enhances the efficiency of subsequent analysis.
  4. Traffic Analysis Techniques: Various techniques are applied to analyze the filtered network traffic, including:
  5. Protocol Analysis: Analyzing the protocols used in network traffic to understand the type of communication occurring. This includes identifying protocols such as HTTP, FTP, DNS, etc., and their associated behaviors.
  6. Statistical Analysis: Analyzing network traffic patterns, such as traffic volume, flow rates, packet sizes, and response times. Statistical analysis can help identify trends, anomalies, or potential performance issues.
  7. Behavioral Analysis: Examining patterns of network behavior over time to detect anomalies or suspicious activities. This can involve comparing current traffic patterns to baseline models or known patterns of normal behavior. In the case of the Gurucul Network Traffic Analysis solution, organizations are provided visibility into unknown and undetected network threats based on risky abnormal behavior. Gurucul machine learning based NTA uses entity models to create behavior baselines for every device and machine on the network based on network flow data such as source and destination IPs/machines, protocol, bytes in/out, etc. It also supports leveraging DHCP logs to correlate IP specific data to machines and users.
  8. Payload Analysis: Inspecting the contents of network packets to extract meaningful information. This can involve examining application-layer data, such as URLs, email subjects, or file contents, to understand the nature of communication or identify potential security threats.
  9. Flow Analysis: Analyzing the flow of network traffic between different hosts or networks to understand communication patterns, detect bottlenecks, or identify potential security incidents.
  10. Visualization and Reporting: The results of the analysis are often presented in visual form to facilitate interpretation. Graphs, charts, and reports help network administrators, security analysts, or researchers understand the findings, identify issues, and make informed decisions.

Use Cases for NTA

There are numerous security-oriented use cases for network traffic analysis.

  • Detect Traffic To/From Unusual Geo Locations
    With context from any log family containing IP address fields, it’s possible to detect “geographically undesirable” traffic indicative of account sharing (security policy violations), account takeover (login through compromised credentials), or VPN usage (circumvention of network controls).
  • Expose DNS Tunneling
    NTA can uniquely detect traffic to unusual DNS Servers and surges in outbound DNS queries. It performs comprehensive DNS packet inspection. Standard detection mechanisms only look at DNS length.
  • Identify Unknown IoT Devices
    NTA monitors activities from all network devices and detects unauthorized use of non-registered devices to access the network. NTA also discovers unknown or unseen devices or services on the network so they can be removed or disabled.
  • Internal and External Threat Monitoring
    NTA provides an effective understanding of real-time network and application traffic. This includes monitoring complex cloud, hybrid, or on-premises architectures with east and west network traffic, which can help identify attacker lateral movement and spreading of an infection across resources. In addition, NTA is effective at monitoring north and south traffic for command-and-control activity to external malicious hosts that could be for downloading more malware, sharing encryption keys for ransomware or externally monitoring current ransomware status, and data exfiltration.
  • Attack Attribution
    NTA can aid in attributing cyber-attacks to specific threat actors or groups. By examining network traffic patterns, communication channels, and other indicators, organizations can gather evidence to identify the source of an attack or the origin of malicious activity. This information can be useful in legal proceedings or intelligence sharing with relevant authorities.
  • Incident Response
    Analyzing network traffic assists in incident response efforts by providing valuable insights into the nature and scope of security incidents. It helps security teams understand how an attack occurred, the affected systems or devices, the data accessed or compromised, and the methods used by attackers. This information facilitates effective incident containment, eradication, and recovery processes.
  • Threat Intelligence
    Analyzing network traffic provides valuable data for threat intelligence purposes. By monitoring and analyzing network traffic, organizations can gather information about the latest attack vectors, emerging malware strains, new vulnerabilities, and other indicators of compromise. This intelligence helps in proactive defense measures, such as updating security controls, implementing patches, and adjusting security policies.
  • Vulnerability Assessment
    Network traffic analysis can help identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the network infrastructure. By examining traffic patterns and communication protocols, organizations can identify potential security gaps, misconfigurations, or outdated software versions that may be exploited by attackers. This information assists in prioritizing vulnerability management efforts and implementing appropriate security measures.
  • Compliance and Audit
    Analyzing network traffic ensures compliance with regulatory requirements and internal security policies. By monitoring network activity, organizations can verify adherence to security standards, track data transfers, and identify any non-compliant or suspicious activities. Network traffic analysis supports auditing processes, enabling organizations to demonstrate compliance and respond to compliance-related inquiries.

How Does NTA Enhance Your Security?

Network traffic analysis plays a crucial role in enhancing security by providing valuable insights into the network activities and detecting potential security threats. Overall, NTA enables proactive monitoring, threat detection, and incident response, helping organizations identify and mitigate security risks in a timely manner. It provides valuable insights into network behavior, assists in detecting and responding to security incidents, and strengthens the overall security posture of the network infrastructure.

Network Traffic Analysis (NTA) Whitepaper

The Key Benefits of NTA

Network traffic analysis delivers numerous benefits, including improved network performance, efficient troubleshooting, effective capacity planning, enhanced security, policy enforcement, forensic analysis capabilities, and comprehensive network visibility. These advantages contribute to better network management, optimized operations, and a strengthened security posture for organizations. The benefits specific to security include:

Security Threat Detection

Network traffic analysis plays a crucial role in identifying security threats and potential breaches. By monitoring and analyzing network traffic, organizations can detect suspicious activities, malware infections, intrusion attempts, and unauthorized access attempts. It helps in mitigating security risks, preventing data breaches, and proactively responding to security incidents.

Compliance and Policy Enforcement

NTA assists in enforcing security policies, regulatory compliance, and acceptable use policies within an organization. It helps in identifying policy violations, detecting unauthorized access or data transfers, and ensuring adherence to security standards and regulations. It supports organizations in maintaining compliance with industry-specific requirements such as PCI DSS or HIPAA.

Forensic Analysis and Investigations

NTA provides valuable data for forensic investigations and incident response. By analyzing captured packets and network logs, security teams can reconstruct the sequence of events leading up to a security incident, identify the source of an attack, and gather evidence for legal proceedings or post-incident analysis. It aids in understanding the scope and impact of security breaches and facilitates remediation efforts.

 

What to Look for In an NTA Solution

When selecting a network traffic analysis tool, there are several key features organizations should consider ensuring it aligns with the company’s specific needs and helps to effectively monitor, analyze, and secure the network infrastructure.

Here are some important features to look for:

    • Packet Capture and Inspection
      With context from any log family containing IP address fields, it’s possible to detect “geographically undesirable” traffic indicative of account sharing (security policy violations), account takeover (login through compromised credentials), or VPN usage (circumvention of network controls).
    • Protocol Support
      Ensure that the tool supports a wide range of network protocols, such as TCP, UDP, HTTP, DNS, SMTP, FTP, etc. This will enable comprehensive analysis of network traffic across different protocols.
    • Real-Time Monitoring
      Look for a tool that provides real-time monitoring and analysis capabilities, allowing you to view network traffic as it happens. This feature is crucial for identifying and responding to security incidents promptly.
    • Traffic Visualization
      An effective network traffic analysis tool should offer visual representations of network traffic patterns, including charts, graphs, and diagrams. This makes it easier to identify trends, anomalies, and potential bottlenecks.
    • Filtering and Search Capabilities
      The ability to filter and search network traffic based on various criteria (source/destination IP, port numbers, protocols, time range, etc.) is essential for focusing on specific traffic subsets and performing in-depth analysis.
    • Statistical Analysis
      Look for features that provide statistical insights into network traffic, such as bandwidth utilization, traffic volume, packet size distribution, protocol distribution, top talkers, etc. These statistics can help identify patterns and trends.
    • Security Analysis
      Ensure that the tool offers security-focused analysis capabilities, including detection of network intrusions, malware, DDoS attacks, and other security threats. It should also support integration with threat intelligence feeds and have alerting mechanisms.
    • Historical Analysis and Reporting
      The tool should allow you to store and analyze historical network traffic data, enabling you to identify long-term trends, conduct forensic analysis, and generate comprehensive reports for auditing and compliance purposes.
    • Integration and Compatibility
      Consider the tool’s ability to integrate with other security and network management systems. Integration with SIEM (Security Information and Event Management) platforms, IDS/IPS (Intrusion Detection/Prevention Systems), and log management tools can enhance your overall network security posture.
    • Scalability and Performance
      Evaluate the tool’s scalability and performance capabilities to ensure it can handle high volumes of network traffic without significantly impacting network performance. This is particularly important for large-scale or enterprise deployments.
    • User-Friendly Interface
      Look for a tool that offers an intuitive and user-friendly interface, making it easier to navigate, configure, and interpret the analysis results. A well-designed interface can improve efficiency and reduce the learning curve.
    • Vendor Support and Updates
      Consider the reputation and reliability of the tool’s vendor, as well as their commitment to providing regular updates, bug fixes, and responsive customer support. This ensures that the tool remains effective and secure over time.

 

Network Security with Gurucul

Gurucul has tailored its Network Traffic Analysis product to focus on identifying unknown network threats using advanced machine learning algorithms on network traffic and packet data. Gurucul NTA provides pre-packaged machine learning models which are pre-configured and tuned to run on high frequency network data streams to detect real-time anomalies and risk ranked threats.

In addition to network data, Gurucul also can ingest and link application and platform logs, security alerts, DHCP, CMDB data, vulnerability assessment reports, threat intelligence and access control data to build rich context. This provides end-to-end visibility and trace of the anomalous behavior kill-chain from across the network. This contextual linked data and extensive library of out-of-the-box behavior and threat models help identify advanced and unknown threats like zero-day exploits, fileless malware, and ransomware. This is achieved by detecting unusual behavior on a given entity (e.g. server, IP, device), any related lateral movement within the network, command and control (C2) communication, suspicious account activity from a compromised account, as well as access misuse.

The platform supports real-time data processing and analytics to quickly detect such threats at near real-time as well as uncover APT / stealth attacks which lay dormant between various stages of an attack. For instance, if a host belonging to the database administrator shows indications of suspicious outbound C2 traffic as well as lateral movement across a range of hosts not seen before, Gurucul NTA will immediately flag such risky abnormal behavior. The solution can be configured to trigger automated risk response to isolate the host from the production network or allow the NetOps team to take preventive actions before the compromise.

With the expansion of IoT and mobility in the borderless enterprise environment, one of the top threats has been the unauthorized use of non-registered devices, and WiFi/IoT networks, to gain access to enterprise networks. The Gurucul NTA solution also discovers and reports any unknown or unseen devices on the network. It closely monitors all activities from such devices with a higher resident risk score.

NetOps and SecOps users can further customize existing machine learning models or deploy their own from templates offered out of the box. These models are highly flexible and allow users to run analytics on a wide variety of attributes including IP addresses, ports, byte size, etc. Custom models are especially useful to track activity from non-traditional hosts such as CCTVs, PoS terminals and IoT devices. With an increasing number of Robotic Process Automations, bots and scripts on the prowl, accounting for and reducing the attack surface for what could be weak links in the network becomes imperative to ensure the overall health of the environment. There exist very few inherent means of securing these devices, and Gurucul Network Traffic Analysis can serve as a valuable alerting tool to preempt any malicious activity.

A side benefit is that network behavior analytics also can identify unregistered devices, network policy violations and network misconfigurations that result in higher risk.

Conclusion

Network traffic analysis is an important proactive defense mechanism that provides one more layer of security by delivering valuable insights into unusual or suspicious network activities. NTA enables proactive monitoring, threat detection, and incident response, helping organizations identify and mitigate security risks in a timely manner.

What is UEBA and How Does It Work?

 

About The Author

Craig CooperCraig Cooper, Chief Operating Officer, Gurucul

Craig Cooper has served in several information security and risk management roles including CISO for a Fortune 500 Financial Services organization. While in this role, Craig defined and implemented an ISO standards-based Information Security program. Craig has led, developed, and delivered multiple Identity and Access Management Strategies and Roadmaps for several organizations. Craig has written for several trade magazines and has been a speaker with Burton Catalyst, Gartner, and ISSA

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you analyze network traffic data?

Network traffic data is analyzed by capturing and collecting packets, filtering, and parsing the information, applying statistical analysis and machine learning techniques for anomaly detection and pattern recognition, conducting deep packet inspection, and interpreting the results to identify security threats, performance issues, or network optimization opportunities.

What is the goal of network traffic analysis as it pertains to security?

The goal of analyzing and monitoring network traffic for cyber threats is to enhance an organization’s cybersecurity defenses. This is done by having another layer of threat detection; getting an early warning of threats before they can cause damage; getting valuable insights to assist with incident response; gathering evidence for attack attribution; and identifying vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the network infrastructure.

What are the differences between UEBA and NTA?

UEBA (User and Entity Behavior Analytics) and NTA (Network Traffic Analysis) are two distinct approaches to network security. UEBA focuses on analyzing user and entity behavior within a network to detect abnormal or potentially malicious activities. It utilizes machine learning and behavioral analytics to establish baselines of normal behavior and identify deviations that could indicate security threats. On the other hand, NTA primarily focuses on analyzing network traffic patterns, protocols, and flow data to detect anomalies or indicators of compromise. It involves monitoring and inspecting network packets to identify malicious activities or unauthorized access attempts. While UEBA emphasizes user behavior, NTA is more concerned with the network-level aspects of security monitoring.