Detection of slow port scans in flow-based network traffic
Detection of slow port scans in flow-based network traffic
Markus RingID 0 1
Dieter Landes 0 1
Andreas Hotho 1
0 Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Informatics, Coburg University of Applied Sciences and Arts , 96450 Coburg, Germany , 2 Data Mining and Information Retrieval Group, University of WuÈrzburg , 97074 WuÈrzburg , Germany
1 Editor: Yong Deng, Southwest University , CHINA
Frequently, port scans are early indicators of more serious attacks. Unfortunately, the detection of slow port scans in company networks is challenging due to the massive amount of network data. This paper proposes an innovative approach for preprocessing flow-based data which is specifically tailored to the detection of slow port scans. The preprocessing chain generates new objects based on flow-based data aggregated over time windows while taking domain knowledge as well as additional knowledge about the network structure into account. The computed objects are used as input for the further analysis. Based on these objects, we propose two different approaches for detection of slow port scans. One approach is unsupervised and uses sequential hypothesis testing whereas the other approach is supervised and uses classification algorithms. We compare both approaches with existing port scan detection algorithms on the flow-based CIDDS-001 data set. Experiments indicate that the proposed approaches achieve better detection rates and exhibit less false alarms than similar algorithms.
Funding: This work is funded by the Bavarian
Ministry for Economic affairs through the WISENT
project (grant no. IUK 452/002) and the BayWISS
Consortium Digitization. The funders had no role in
study design, data collection and analysis, decision
to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: The authors have declared
that no competing interests exist.
Company data are a valuable asset which must be protected against unauthorized access and
]. Therefore, companies use various security mechanisms like firewalls or
intrusion detection sytems (IDS) to protect their data [
]. Most of these operational security
systems are, however, signature-based and cannot detect or prevent novel attack scenarios
This work aims to support security experts and security systems in detecting novel and
more serious attacks on the basis of data which are easy to obtain, while, at the same time,
respecting the privacy of the user. To reach this goal, a flexible method is needed which is able
to identify new attacks by utilizing and finally generalizing known behaviour. We take
advantage of the fact that attack scenarios often follow a general sequence of phases. Skoudis and
] provide a widely known definition of five attack phases, namely Reconnaissance,
Scanning, Gaining Access, Maintaining Access and Covering Tracks. In the Scanning phase,
attackers often use port scans to identify hosts or networks which they want to infiltrate [
Normally, port scans trigger huge amounts of requests to different ports or IP Addresses
within a short period of time. Such port scans can be easily detected by simple mechanisms
like counting the number of requested ports for each Source IP Address. However, serious
attackers scan their targets slowly in order to avoid suspicion. Slow means in this context that
an attacker does not send probe packets permanently. Rather, attackers send probe packets to
a host for example only every 15 seconds or every 5 minutes. Consequently, detection of slow
port scans is more challenging. Due to the fact that scanning is an essential phase within a
typical attack scenario, it is of upmost importance to detect slow port scans in order to identify
new attacks. Detection of slow port scans must be taken into account for intrusion and insider
This paper tackles the problem of detecting slow port scans in flow-based network data.
Port scans as such do not cause any damage, but often constitute a forerunner of attacks that
might cause serious harm. Thus, our work contributes to detecting attacks early, namely
already in an initial stage during the Scanning phase.
Network flows provide meta information about network connections between endpoint
devices. Information in flow-based data is significantly condensed in comparison to
packetbased data. Hence, the detection of slow port scans is more complicated, but the amount of
data to be analysed and, consequently, privacy concerns are reduced. Due to these advantages,
we focus on flow-based data and propose two different approaches for the detection of (slow)
port scans. The main idea of both approaches is to overcome the shortcomings of flow-based
data by exploiting knowledge about the company network and characteristics of port scans in
flow-based data. To that end, we propose an innovative preprocessing chain which is
specifically tailored to detect slow port scans. We use knowledge about the company network to
identify internal hosts. A flow describes only one specific connection whereas a port scan causes
many connections. To overcome this issue, we collect flows over time windows. The collected
flows are used to calculate new objectsÐwhich we call network eventsÐwith attributes like
number of flows directed to non-existing internal IP Addresses. These network events are the
basis of our two new port scan detection approaches. One approach is unsupervised and uses
sequential hypothesis testing whereas the other approach is supervised and uses classification
algorithms. Supervised approaches often achieve better results. Yet, in contrast to
unsupervised approaches, they need labelled training data which are often hard to obtain. To
generalize both approaches, we train and optimize them only on a subset of the flow-based data.
Then, we apply these approaches to the remaining flow-based data to demonstrate how they
perform on new data.
The paper's main contribution is an innovative preprocessing chain which results in the
generation of network events with attributes tailored for port scan detection. Further, we
present two approaches for detecting (slow) port scans in flow-based network data.
The rest of the paper is organized as follows: the next section reviews related work on
flowbased intrusion detection and on port scan detection algorithms. Then, the problem setting
and the underlying flow-based data are discussed in more detail. Next, the preprocessing chain
as well as approaches for detecting slow port scans are pesented. Furthermore, an experimental
evaluation of both approaches is provided. The last section summarizes the paper and provides
an outlook to future work.
This work targets the detection of slow port scans in flow-based network traffic. Therefore, we
provide an overview of flow-based intrusion detection before we review related work on port
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Flow-based intrusion detection
Bhuyan et al. [
] provide an extensive review of packet- and flow-based anomaly detection
methods. The authors categorize existing methods with respect to their technologies and
categorize different attack types. In a more recent survey of data mining and machine learning for
cyber security, Buczak and Guven [
] comprehensively review data mining methods for cyber
security and provide an overview of well-known network-based data sets. Sommer and Paxson
] identified various challenges (e.g. the lack of training data sets or the high cost of false
alarms) for the use of anomaly-based network intrusion detection methods.
Packet- and flow-based network data consists of continuous and categorical attributes.
Since categorical attributes have no natural order within their value ranges, standard similarity
measures like the cosine similarity can not be used. The omnipresent IP Addresses in
flowbased data are an example of categorical attributes. Many approaches deal with the similarity
calculation of IP Addresses, e.g. Ring et al. [
] learned similarities between IP Addresses by
extracting context information from flow-based network data. Weller-Fahy et al.  propose
an overview of the used similarity measures of anomaly-based network intrusion detection
systems. This work circumvents calculating similarities between categorical values by creating
new objects (network events) with exclusively continuous attributes.
AlEroud and Karabatis [
] present a flow-based intrusion detection system that utilizes
contextual information through semantic link networks (SLN). The authors extract time,
location and other contextual information from flows to generate semantic links between alerts.
Nychis et al. [
] propose an entropy-based anomaly detection approach which divides the
flow-based data stream into five minute intervals and calculates various distributions for
different attributes. Then, entropy values are calculated based on these distributions and used for
anomaly detection. BClus [
] is an anomaly-based botnet detection method for flow-based
data. It divides the flow-based data stream in time windows and aggregates the flows with
respect to their Source IP Addresses in each time window. Then, new attributes are calculated
for each aggregation and subjected to machine learning methods for botnet detection. While
we aggreagte flow-based data streams like BClus [
], we compute new objects with adjusted
attributes and focus on the detection of slow port scans rather than botnet detection as BClus
Port scan detection
Over the years, considerable effort has been spent on network-based port scan detection
algorithms. Network-based port scan detection algorithms may be divided into packet-based
(category I) and flow-based approaches (category II).
Bhuyan et al. [
] provide an overview of port scanning and methodologies to the detection
of port scans. The authors distinguish single source and distributed port scans and discuss a
large number of port scan detection methods of both categories in detail. They summarize that
most approaches are packet-based and that the lack of publicly available data sets complicates
the evaluation and comparison of the different approaches [
]. Bou-Harb et al. [
] give a
more recent review of port scanning. In particular, the authors categorize network scans
according to their nature, strategy, and approach. Further, the authors explain different
scanning methods and present existing methods for distributed port scan detection.
Packet-based port scan detection (category I). Staniford et al.  present a packet
based detection algorithm for stealthy port scans from category I. The authors calculate an
anomaly score for each packet which depends on the likelihood of occurrence for the IP
Addresses and Ports. Anomalous packets are forwarded to SPICE (Stealthy Probing and
Intrusion Correlation Engine). SPICE stores the packets as nodes in a correlation graph and uses
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thresholds to identify scanners. Threshold Random Walk (TRW) [
] is another packet-based
port scan detection algorithm. TRW analyzes TCP packets only based on the assumption that
port scanners have more failed connections than legitimate clients. TCP packets are
distinguished as successful or failed based on TCP flags. TRW uses sequential hypothesis testing and
defines two hypotheses H0 (the Source IP Address is normal) and H1 (the Source IP Address is a
scanner). For each Source IP Address an accumulated ratio is updated after each arriving packet
and checked against two thresholds. If the accumlated ratio exceeds any of the two thresholds,
one hypotheses is accepted and the Source IP Address is marked as normal or scanner. In a
nutshell, the approaches of Staniford et al. [
] and Jung et al. [
] rely on packet-based data
whereas our approach focuses on flow-based network traffic.
Flow-based port scan detection (category II). Sridharan et al.  transferred sequen
tial hypothesis testing to flow-based data and present a representative of category II. The
authors do not use a definition of successful or failed connections. Instead, their system
TAPS collects the flow-based data over time windows and calculates for each Source IP
Address the ratio of connected Destination IP Addresses and Destination Ports. The authors
assume that port scanners have a very high or very low ratio in contrast to normal clients. If
the ratio exceeds any of the two predefined thresholds, the Source IP Address is marked as
normal or scanner. Further, Sridharan et al. [
] transferred the packet-based approach TRW
to flow-based data and denominate it as TRW-SYN. TRW-SYN processes each flow separately
and marks them as successful or failed based on the set TCP flags and number of packets.
Zhang and Fang [
] propose TFDS, a port scan detection approach which is based on
unidirectional flow-based data. TFDS is based on the observation that network scanners cause
many small-sized flows and the flow size of normal traffic is larger and more variable in size.
Therefore, TFDS collects the flow-based data over time windows and analyses the size and
variation of the flows for each Source IP Address. For identifying port scanners, TFDS uses
sequential hypothesis testing as TAPS and TRW do. The authors compared their method
TFDS to TAPS and outperformed TAPS. Still, the high false positive rate is a weakness of
both, TAPS and TFDS.
Gates et al. [
] use a Bayesian regression model to identify network scans at an Internet
Service Provider (ISP) environment. Specifically, the authors collect flows for each Source IP
Address over time periods and calculate objects with additional attributes as input for their
model. Gates et al. [
] continue collecting flows until no further flow from the respective
Source IP Address is received within a 5 minute time window. This may have been a valid
assumption for ISP environments in the past. Nowadays, however, the permanent
synchronisation of different services (e-mail clients, network drives, etc.) invalidates 5 minute time
windows as appropriate stop criterion for company networks. Webster et al.  extended the list
of calculated attributes of Gates et al. [
] and evaluated the performance of different
classification algorithms for network scan detection in a university network.
Our approach does not process each flow separately like TRW-SYN [
], but resembles the
approach of Gates et al. [
] in that it collects flows over times windows and calculates new
objects with specific attributes. In contrast to the work of Gates et al. [
] and Webster et al.
, our work utilizes knowledge about the company network. Thus, more specific attributes
(e.g. number of accesses to non-existing IP Addresses) can be calculated which consider
additional knowledge about hosts and network structures.
Since this work is particularly directed towards identifying slow port scans in flow-based data,
we first analyse port scans and flow-based data in more detail.
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Analysis of port scans
In active port scanning, an attacker identifies network hosts and services by transmitting
probe packets. Many different port scan techniques exist and the behaviour of attackers and
victims varies for these techniques. In the following, we focus on the main characteristics of
port scan techniques. Port scanning can be broadly divided into horizontal and vertical
scanning. Vertical scans are used to spot open ports of a single host while the more common
horizontal scans are used to identify hosts for a specific open port [
TCP. The most common type of TCP port scanning is SYN-Scan. Here, the attacker
sends the initial SYN request of the 3-Way-Handshake to the victim. Then, the victim sends a
SYN-ACK response to the attacker if the port is open, or a RST response if the port is closed. In
order to prevent log entries on the victim host, the attacker does normally not complete the
3-Way-Handshake for open ports. Therefore, this type of scan is often called stealthy SYN-Scan
]. FIN-Scans are another TCP-Scan technique which sends FIN messages instead of SYN
messages for bypassing firewall rules. If such a request is directed to a closed port, the victim
sends a RST response. If an open port is addressed, the victim renders no response. Other
TCP-Scan techniques are e.g. ACK-Scans or XMAS-Scans which send different combinations
of TCP flags in the initial TCP request.
UDP. UDP scanning differs significantly from TCP scanning. If the attacker addresses an
open UDP port, the victim does not necessarily render a response. However, similar behaviour
can be observed when a firewall blocks the request. If the attacker sends the request to a closed
UDP port, the victim normally responds with an ICMP unreachable message. Often, operating
systems limit the number of ICMP unreachable messages to one per second [
In conclusion, observed flow-based network traffic varies significantly for different port
scan techniques. The identification of victims seems to be easier than the identification of
attackers since victims follow protocol rules and attackers vary their behaviour to trick security
mechanisms. Further, port scan requests to closed ports seem to be easier to detect than those
to open ports due to the abnormal behaviour of the victim.
Flow-based data provide meta information about network connections between endpoint
devices and can be easily captured at network devices like switches. Claise [
] defines a flow
as a sequence of packets with some common properties that pass through a network device.
Traditionally, all packets which share the properties Source IP Address, Source Port, Destination
IP Address, Destination Port and Transport Protocol are aggregated into one flow [
]. We use
flows in NetFlow [
] format which follows this aggregation strategy. Port scans primarily aim
at the identification of open ports on a specific host or at detecting various hosts with a specific
open port. Since Destination IP Address and Destination Port are aggregation properties, a port
scan causes a separate flow for each targeted host or targeted port.
Flows appear either in unidirectional or bidirectional format. Unidirectional flows
represent a summary of all packets from host A to host B which share the same properties.
The packets from host B to host A are aggregated in another unidirectional flow. In
contrast, one bidirectional flow encompasses a summary of both, the transmitted packets
from host A to host B as well as from host B to host A. Bidirectional flows contain more
information but asymmetric routing in company backbones could distort the information
in bidirectional flows [
]. Therefore, this work uses unidirectional flows in NetFlow [
NetFlow has an active and an inactive timeout for flows. The inactive timeout terminates
a flow if no further packets are received within α seconds. The active timeout terminates a
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flow if it has been open for more than β seconds. By default, NetFlow uses the values α = 15
and β = 1800.
Table 1 shows typical attributes in unidirectional flow-based data.
In this section, we introduce our two approaches for detecting (slow) port scans. First, we
propose the common idea of both approaches. Then, we present our novel preprocessing chain of
flow-based data which results in the generation of network events tailored for port scan
detection. Finally, we describe our two port scan detection methods UPDS (Unsupervised Port Scan
Detection) and SPDS (Supervised Port Scan Detection).
Outline of the proposed approaches
Fig 1 provides an overview of the proposed approaches and illustrates the general workflow.
Starting point of both approaches is the unbounded flow-based data stream which is
received from network devices like firewalls, routers or switches. In the first step, we use
additional knowledge about the network structure to enrich the flow-based data stream with
additional information. We tag the information if a Source (Destination) IP Address is internal or
external to each flow. For this purpose, a so called network information file is required which
needs to be set up by a domain expert and should contain all IP subnet addresses of the
company network. After that, we collect the flows over time windows in the second preprocessing
step. This helps us to confront the challenge that a port scan is characterized by sequences of
flows and not by a single flow. The result of the second step is the generation of network events.
These network events are used as input objects for our two port scan detection approaches.
The first approach UPSD is unsupervised and uses sequential hypothesis testing. The second
approach is supervised and uses classification algorithms. Both approaches process the
incoming network events in real-time and depending on their results, port scan alerts are generated
Preprocessing of flow-based data
Our preprocessing chain (Step 1 and Step 2 in Fig 1) results in the generation of network
events. Therefore, we collect all incoming flows within a time window of δ seconds. Then, we
calculate for each Source IP Address in each time window one network event based on these
collections. These network events are used as input values for our detection algorithms UPSD and
Source IP Address
Destination IP Address
Transport Protocol (e.g. ICMP, TCP, or UDP)
Start time flow first seen
Duration of the flow
Number of transmitted bytes
Number of transmitted packets
OR concatenation of all TCP flags
6 / 18
Fig 1. Proposed workflow for the detection of slow port scans.
Generation of network events. Attackers use port scans to collect information about a
network. Their goal is to learn about open ports which they can exploit in succeeding steps.
Consequently, it is more likely for attackers to address closed ports or non-existing IP
Addresses than for legitimate clients when scanning the whole network for open ports. We use
this heuristic to build network events with appropriate attributes for port scan detection.
Further, we exploit additional knowledge about the network structure. More specifically, we store
all internal IP Addresses and any known open TCP port for internal IP Addresses. The latter is
achieved by recording any combination of Source IP Address and Source Port (between 0 and
1024) for which a valid TCP connection could be observed. Table 2 provides a summary of the
calculated attributes for network events.
Example. In the following, we want to explain the attributes of network events through an
example (see Tables 3 and 4). Table 3 shows the known internal IP Addresses and known open
TCP ports. Table 4 provides an overview of the captured flows within an exemplary time
window. The first attribute of the network event is the IP Address of the host. The IP Address is
only used to identify the source of port scans and is not considered by further analysis
methods. In our example, we want to create a network event for the host with the IP Address
192.168.220.16. A unique combination of Destination IP Address and Destination Port is called
The attributes 2 and 3 for network events (see Table 2) consider the identified behaviour of
victims (see Section Analysis of Port Scans). The attribute ICMP-Error count contains the
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Known internal IP Addresses
number of received ICMP unreachable flows and is an indicator for UDP scans. For our
example, the value of ICMP-Error count is 2, since the IP Address 192.168.220.16 receives two ICMP
unreachable messages (see flow number #18 and #20) in Table 4.
Similarly, the attribute RST count is an indicator for TCP scans. If an attacker addresses a
closed TCP Port, the victim normally sends a RST flag as response. The attribute RST count
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tries to measure this behaviour. However, RST flags are also used to cancel existing
connections. Therefore, we only consider flows with received RST flags from different targets for
which a previous request and no established connection could be observed. The value of RST
count in our example is 2 (flows #10, #11 and #12). Flows #10 and #11 only count as one,
since they are received from the same target. There is no request from 192.168.220.16 to
220.127.116.11. Therefore, the RST flag of flow #4 is not considered. The RST flags of flows #5 and #6
are also not counted since an open connection for these flows can be observed (see flows #1
Often firewalls and other security mechanisms block probe packets of attackers. In these
cases, we can observe a unidirectional flow from the attacker to the victim even if the probe
packets never reach their targets. In consequence, the victim does not return a response and,
hence, no corresponding unidirectional flow from the victim to the attacker can be observed,
which is reflected in the fourth attribute, RwA count. This attribute contains the number of
flows without corresponding flows in the opposite direction. Flows with multicast or broadcast
addresses in the attribute Destination IP Address are excluded by this counter. Multiple
unidirectional flows to the same target without corresponding counterpart in the opposite direction
are only counted once. The value of RwA count is 4 in our example. Here, we count the flows
#13, #14, #15, #16, #17 and #19. However, the flows #13, #14, #15 have the same target and are
only counted once.
As already mentioned above, it is more likely for attackers to address closed ports or
nonexisting IP Addresses than for legitimate clients. The attributes 5 and 6 try to consider these
facts. The fifth attribute NeIP count contains the number of requested non-existing internal
Destination IP Addresses. In our example, all IP Addresses with 192.168.X.X are internal.
Consequently, the value of NeIP count is 1 (flow #17).
Further, we store all known open TCP ports for internal hosts. The attribute NeTCP count
contains the number of flows to different targets which address non open known TCP ports
on internal hosts. In our example, the attribute NeTCP count has the value 3 (flows #7, #8, #9
and #16). Flows #7 and #8 together only count once.
For detecting slow port scans, we use the following approach. The attributes ICMP-Error
count, RST count, RwA count, NeIP count and NeTCP count are indicators for port scans. If all
indicator attributes are zero, we set the value of attribute Succession count to 0. Otherwise, we
distinguish the following two cases: (1) The value of the attribute Succession count for this IP
Address was zero in the previous time window. In this case, we set the value of the attribute
Succession count to 1. (2) The value of the attribute Succession count for this IP Address had
value v in the previous time window. In this case, Succession count will be set to v + 1.
Consequently, the attribute Succession count contains the information how often the IP Address has a
value greater than 0 in any indicator attribute in succession. This heuristic is based on the
assumption that badly configured clients may exceed the threshold for a short period, but only
port scanners do so over longer periods.
UPSDÐUnsupervised port scan detection
In the unsupervised UPSD approach, we transfer Jung's idea of sequential hypothesis testing
] for port scan detection to our network events outlined in the previous section.
Sequential hypothesis testing updates a likelihood variable with a given stream of events
in order to assign this stream to one of two possible sets H0 or H1. In our scenario, the stream
of events consists of network events from the same Source IP Address. Further, the set H0
contains the normal hosts and the set of port scanners is described by H1. Each network event is
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represented as an indicator variable Yi:
0 if network event i is sucessful
1 if network event i is not sucessful
Therefore, we have to define if a network event is successful or not successful. Since our
primary goal is a low number of false alarms when detecting slow port scans, we choose only
strong indicators for port scans from Table 2. We experimentally observed that the attributes
RST count and RwA count have often values greater than 0 for normal network traffic. One
reason for this observation is the processing of the data stream which divides the data stream into
fixed time windows. Let us assume, the unidirectional flow from host A to host B appears in
time window t and unidirectional flow from host B to host A (response) appears in time
window t + 1. Consequently, the attribute RwA count would be 1 for host A in time window t and
1 for host B in time window t + 1. For this reason, we only consider the attributes ICMP-Error
count, NeIP count and NeTCP count. We compute the sum α of these three attributes. If α is 0,
the network event is successful, otherwise it is not successful. Since sequential hypothesis
testing considers times series from scratch, it makes no sense to consider the attribute Succession
Further, there are four probabilities attached to the indicator variable Yi:
PrYi 0jH0 y0
PrYi 1jH0 1
PrYi 0jH1 y1
PrYi 1jH1 1
Eqs 2, 3, 4 and 5 describe the probabilities that an event is successful (or not successful) on
condition that it belongs to the set H0 (or H1). It is important to note that there must be a
significant difference between the statistical behaviour of H0 and H1. For example, the set of
normal hosts H0 should have more successful network events than the set of port scanners H1. The
probabilities θ0 and θ1 are user-defined input parameters. For each incoming network event,
the sequential hypothesis testing updates the likelihood ratio of the corresponding Source IP
Address as follows:
ratioisrcIP ratioisrc1IP a
i PrYi gjH0
where γ is 0 for successful network events and 1 for not successful network events. The variable
αi is the sum of the attributes ICMP-Error count, NeIP count and NeTCP count from the recent
network event i. If αi is 0 (successful network event), we set the value of αi to 1 in order to
prevent a multiplication by 0.
After updating the ratio, we check it against two thresholds η0 and η1. If ratioisrcIP exceeds
any of the two thresholds, the Source IP Address will be labelled with the corresponding class
and the ratio of this Source IP Address is reset to 1. If ratioisrcIP < Z0, then the Source IP Address
could be assigned to H0 (normal host). If ratioisrcIP > Z1, then the Source IP Address could be
assigned to H1 (scanner). In this case, UPSD raises an alert that the Source IP Address is a port
Algorithm 1 shows the pseudo code of UPSD.
Algorithm 1: Unsupervised algorithm UPSD for detecting slow port scans.
srcIPRatios // HashMap for storing the ratios
while end of network event stream is not reached do
event = read next network event
ip = event.srcIP
If ip not in srcIPRatios then
ratio = srcIPRatios.get(ip)
αi = event.ICMP-Error_count+event.NeIP_count+event.NeTCP_count
if αi > 0 then
ratio ratio ai 11 yy01
ratio ratio 1 yy1
If ratio > η1 then
mark ip as scanner
If ratio < η0 then
mark ip as normal
SPSDÐSupervised port scan detection
Our supervised SPSD approach is based on classification algorithms. To be precise, we use
Support Vector Machines (SVM) and Decision Trees. Generally, classification algorithms are used
to assign objects to different predefined groups (classes). The process of classification consists
of two steps. In the first step, the classification algorithm is trained with a labelled set of
training objects. Each training object contains a label indicating the class the object belongs to. The
classification algorithm learns the characteristics of the different classes and builds a model or
function for the assignment (classification) of new or unlabelled objects. In the second step,
the classification algorithm uses this model or function to classify unseen objects [
network events are the input objects in our port scan scenario and we have two classes: normal
and attack. We use the attributes #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7 (see Table 2) of network events for
training the classification algorithms. After training the classification algorithm, we use it to
classify unseen network events. If a network events is assigned to the class attack, SPSD raises an
alert that the corresponding Source IP Address is a port scanner.
Decision tree. A decision tree builds a tree to classify input objects and has three basic
elements. Every inner node checks the value of an attribute. The edges of the inner nodes
represent the possible results of the attribute check. Depending on the attribute values, a certain
path is followed until a leaf node is reached. The leaf nodes assign class labels to objects and do
not perform further comparisons.
In the training phase, the decision tree is learnt from the data. Starting at the root node, an
attribute is assigned to the node. The algorithm selects the attribute which optimizes an
evaluation function. For every possible attribute value, a child node is created and the training objects
are separated into sets according to their value of this particular attribute. This process is
repeated for each child node, until all training objects belong to the same class or until all
attributes have already been assigned to inner nodes on this path. Normally, a pruning step is
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performed after the decision tree has been created. Pruning reduces the complexity of the tree
by removing unnecessary branches and improves classification accuracy [
Support vector machines. SVMs are binary classifiers for linear and non-linear data
which classify input objects into two different classes. Often, SVMs use a kernel function
which transforms the input data to a higher-dimensional space, the so-called feature space. In
this features space, SVMs search for the optimal hyperplane which separates the input objects
with respect to their classes. The optimal hyperplane maximizes the distance to the nearest
objects on both sides.
In the classification phase, a SVM maps the new input objects to the feature space and uses
the identified hyperplane to classify them [
Experiments and discussion
This section presents an experimental evaluation of our proposed port scan detection
approaches (UPSD and SPSD) on the flow-based CIDDS-001 data set [
]. We compare our
approaches with the widespread flow-based port scan detection algorithms TRW-SYN [
and TFDS [
]. Further, we use an adjusted version of Webster et al.  as third baseline
since it seems to be the most similar approach to our work.
Evaluation data set
We use the CIDDS-001 (https://www.hs-coburg.de/cidds) [
] data set for evaluation. In the
CIDDS-001 data set, a small business environment was rebuilt using the software platform
OpenStack and the generated network traffic was captured in unidirectional NetFlow format.
The small business environment contains about 20 clients and typical servers like File-Server
and Email-Server. The user behaviour of the clients is simulated by scripts which execute
typical user activities on the clients. The scripts take restrictions such as working hours and
different working styles into account in order to generate network traffic that is as realistic as
possible. Further, the authors executed several attacks within the network and labelled all
The CIDDS-001 [
] data set consists of two parts. One part contains the flow-based
network traffic within the OpenStack environment. The other part contains flow-based network
traffic observed at an external server in the internet. In this work, we use only the OpenStack
part of the data set. This part contains 4 weeks of network traffic where the first two weeks
contain several attacks and the last two weeks are free of attacks. For our experiments, we use the
first two weeks of this data set and refer to them as week1 and week2.
We edited the data set as follows. At first, we filtered out all attacks except scanning attacks.
The remaining data set contains only normal traffic and scanning attacks. The flows can be
distinguished in three classes: attacker, victim and normal. Since we are only interested in
identifying attackers, we changed the label victim to normal for all flows. The resulting data set
contains more than 15 millions flows which can be distinguished in normal and attacker. Table 5
provides an overview of the executed port scans within this data set.
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The authors of [
] used the tool nmap for the execution of port scans within the
CIDDS001 data set. Table 5 shows that there are 26 port scans in week1 and 14 port scans in week2.
The parameter T controls the timing behaviour of the port scans: the higher the value of T, the
faster the port scan. A port scan with parameter T = 1 sends a probe packet every 15 seconds
whereas a port scan with parameter T = 2 sends a probe packet every 0.4 seconds [
Other existing labelled data sets like ISCX [
] or MAWI repository [
] are not suitable for
our evaluation setting. The MAWI repository [
] publishes up-to-date packet-based data sets
which are captured at an internet backbone. Using these data sets would destroy the
fundamental idea of the proposed approaches since it would be impossible to integrate additional
knowledge about the network structure. In contrast to that, the flow-based data set ISCX [
does not focus on port scans, but rather on various other types of attacks such as (Distributed)
Denial of Service. Thus, it cannot serve as a reasonable baseline for our purpose.
We use the number of recognized scanning attacks and the number of false alarms as
TRW-SYN processes each flow separately and assigns each flow to the class normal or
attacker. TFDS, Webster, UPSD and SPSD collect flows over time windows and assign each
collection to the class normal or attacker. Due to this collection procedure, some collections can
contain normal and attacker flows (we refer to them as mixed collections in the following).
Mixed collections can not be uniquley assigned to the class normal or attacker. Consequently,
we have to use additional rules for labelling mixed collections. In this work, we assign each
mixed collection to the class attacker. Therefore, the classification accuarcy would not be a fair
evaluation measure, since not all approaches (TRW-SYN) use this additional labelling rule. For
this reason, we do not use the classification accuracy as additional evaluation measure.
This section provides information about the parameters settings of the different approaches.
Further, it should be considered that our approach SPSD and the work of Webster are
supervised methods which need labelled data in the training phase. In contrast to that, TRW-SYN,
TFDS and UPSD are unsupervised methods which do not need labelled data in the training
TRW-SYN. TRW-SYN is controlled by four user-defined input parameters. We evaluate
TRW-SYN with two different parameter settings. First, we use the parameter from [
refer to them as TRW-SYN (default): η1 = 99, η0 = 0.01, θ1 = 0.2, and θ0 = 0.8. Then, we
empirically optimized the parameters for week1 of the CIDDS-001 data set. We refer to this
parameter setting as TRW-SYN (optimized): η1 = 99999, η0 = 0.0001, θ1 = 0.3, and θ0 = 0.6.
TFDS. TFDS needs the input of seven user-defined parameters. Here, we also evaluate
two different parameter settings. First, we use the parameter from [
] as default parameter
TFDS (default): η1 = 256, Z0 2156, θ1 = 0.2, θ0 = 0.8, c = 10, α = 0.1 and t = 20. Second, we
empirically optimized the parameters for week1 of the CIDDS-001 data set. We refer to
this parameter setting as TFDS (optimized): η1 = 10000, Z0 101000, θ1 = 0.25, θ0 = 0.75, c = 10,
α = 0.15 and t = 40.
UPSD. UPSD collects all incoming flows within a δ second time window and calculates
for each Source IP Address within this time window one network event. We set the parameter
δ = 60 for the calculation of time windows.
Further, this approach needs like TRW-SYN four user-defined input parameters. We
configured the parameter such that we detect the maximum number of port scans in week1 of the
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CIDDS-001 data set. We refer this setting as UPSD (maxDect): η1 = 99, η0 = 0.01, θ1 = 0.2,
and θ0 = 0.8. Then, we tried to reduce the number of false alarms for week1. We refer this
setting as UPSD (minFP) and used the following configuration: η1 = 999, η0 = 0.001, θ1 = 0.2, and
θ0 = 0.8.
SPSD. Similar to UPSD, we set the window parameter δ = 60 for the calculation of time
windows. Then, we use Decision Tree and SVM classifiers for the identification of port scans.
These classifiers have to be trained with labelled training data before they can be used to
classify new network events. Therefore, we trained the classifiers on week1 to classify week2 and
vice versa. All continuous attributes of network events are normalized through scaling to the
]. Both classification algorithms have some configurable parameters. For SVM, we
used a RBF kernel with parameters C = 10000 and γ = 1.0. For Decision Tree, we used the GINI
index as split criterion.
Webster. Webster et al.  collect the flows for each Source IP Address and calculate
aggregations with additional attributes. The authors apply an attribute selection algorithm and
discretize all attributes. Based on these preprocessing steps, the authors evaluate the
performance of different classification algorithms. For defining the third baselineÐwhich we call
Webster -, we calculate the same attributes as , use the Random Forest classifier which
obtained the best results in  and set the parameter lower bound to 1. However, we make an
adjustment for our evaluation. Webster et al.  collected the flows for each Source IP Address
over the complete data set. As we try to detect port scans in (nearly) real time, it would not be
appropriate to collect the flows of a Source IP Address over the complete data set. Hence we
split the data stream in time windows of 60 seconds (like for USPSD and SPSD) and calculate
one aggregation for each Source IP Address within each time window. Similar to SPSD, we
train the Random Forest classifier on week1 to classify week2 and vice versa.
Table 6 shows the detection rate and false alarms of UPSD, SPSD, TRW-SYN, TFDS and
Webster on the CIDDS-001 data set.
TFDS has the lowest detection rate of port scans. We are able to increase the detection rate
and simultaneously decrease the false alarm rate through parameter optimization for TFDS.
However, it only detects 9 out of 26 attacks in week1 and 4 out of 14 in week2. In contrast to
that, TRW-SYN is able to detect more port scans than TFDS. We are able to reduce the number
of false alarms significantly by customizing the user input parameters. However, this approach
still generates the most false alarms. Depending on the parameter configuration, UPSD is able
to recognize all port scans (UPSD (maxDect)) or to generate no false alarms (UPSD minFP).
The proposed supervised approach SPSD is able to detect all 26 port scans in week1 and all 14
port scans in week2. Further, SPSD with SVM has no false alarms for both weeks. While the
other supervised algorithm Webster is able to detect all port scans in week1 and week2, it
generates in contrast to SPSD a larger number of false alarms than SPSD.
Attacks against company networks often pass the typical attack phases: Reconnaissance,
Scanning, Gaining Access, Maintaining Access and Covering Tracks. Normally, attackers use port
15 / 18
scans in the preliminary Scanning phase to gather information about their targets. For those
reasons, recognition of port scans can be an early indicator for future attacks. However, the
detection of slow port scans is challenging due to the large amount of network traffic in
In this paper, we propose two approaches for detecting slow port scans within flow-based
network data. Both approaches use the same innovative preprocessing chain which is also the
main contribution of this work. This preprocessing chain collects for each host flow-based
network traffic over time windows and enriches the flows with additional information about the
network structure (e.g. is the Source IP Address internal or external). Then, the enriched and
collected flows are used to calculate new objectsÐwhich we called network eventsÐwith
appropriate attributes for port scan detection. These network events are used as input for our
detection approaches: UPSD (Unsupervised Port Scan Detection) and SPSD (Supervised Port Scan
Detection). UPSD uses sequential hypotheses testing whereas SPSD is based on classification
algorithms. Both approaches reduce the amount of data due to the transformation of flows to
network events which simultaneously minimizes the analysis effort for security experts.
We evaluated our approaches experimentally on the CIDDS-001 data set. The results
indicate that both approaches are able to detect slow port scans with a very low false alarm rate. In
the future, we intend to expand the evaluation of the proposed approaches with real world
network data and upcoming evaluation data sets. Further, we want to investigate the usage of
additional domain knowledge in other attack phases.
This work is funded by the Bavarian Ministry for Economic affairs through the WISENT
project (grant no. IUK 452/002). M.R. was supported by the BayWISS Consortium Digitization.
Conceptualization: Markus Ring, Dieter Landes, Andreas Hotho.
Data curation: Markus Ring.
Investigation: Markus Ring.
Methodology: Markus Ring.
Supervision: Dieter Landes, Andreas Hotho.
Writing ± original draft: Markus Ring.
Writing ± review & editing: Dieter Landes, Andreas Hotho.
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