Implementing a new CovertMark strategy

CovertMark strategies exploit specific packet features to distinguish protocol-obfuscation proxy traffic from standard traffic. Current built-in strategies look at the uniformity and entropy distributions of bytes in TCP payloads (CovertMark.strategy.entropy_dist from [1]); and the estimations thereof (CovertMark.strategy.entropy_est); and unusual densely-distributed TCP payload lengths that are either all TLS or all non-TLS (CovertMark.strategy.length_clustering); and a generalised traffic shaping approach training a SGD classifier that does not rely on observing handshakes (CovertMark.strategy.sgd, improving on the machine learning method in [1]).

While modules of existing strategies listed above serve as a very good source of implementation reference for new strategies, it is also useful to provide some general guidance on how they should be designed to minimise re-implementation effort when integrating within CovertMark.

The DetectionStrategy Class

The densely documented DetectionStrategy class performs most housekeeping tasks to allow you to focus on implementing your detection method instead. The last two hundred lines or so in CovertMark.strategy.strategy contains the abstract and non-abstract methods you should implement or override to integrate your detection method with CovertMark, while other inheriting methods should suffice for implementations of most detection methods – with a few quirks that will be explained later.

What is provided by the abstract strategy

  • Parsing and storage of packets in PCAP files supplied by the user, or skipping this step if the user has supplied via the command line interface valid collections of MongoDB-stored packets. This is done by initialising the strategy class with optional paths to PCAP files and calling setup() to supply input filters and/or existing collections.

  • Loading of parsed or stored packets into memory. Only packets matching the strategic filter you set in set_strategic_filter() will be loaded by calling load.

  • Keeping note of what IP addresses or subnets are within the input filters for positive and negative traces respectively, allowing them to be labelled or queried by calling in_positive_filter() and in_negative_filter() as necessary.

  • Automatically timing the execution times of your strategy runs on positive packets, which form part of the CovertMark scoring scheme, as well as other performance metrics if correctly returned from positive and negative runs. You can manually record the TPR, FPR, and false positive IP block rates by calling register_performance_stats() with the relevant parameters after finishing positive and negative runs in your main run_strategy() if automatic recording of these information after positive_run() and negative_run() will not suffice (see below).

  • The ability to print debug custom messages if DEBUG is set to True, through the debug_print() class method.

What you need to implement

In addition to the followed descriptions, implemented methods have more definitive documentation in their docstrings on what are needed expected in parameters and returns, and so on.

  • Your strategy should have its own values for class variables NAME (the name of your strategy), DESCRIPTION (a slightly longer description of what your strategy does), _DEBUG_PREFIX to prefix your strategy’s debug messages, and RUN_CONFIG_DESCRIPTION which contains a list of strings describing each element of your strategy’s run configuration (see below).

  • set_strategic_filter(): Depending on what your strategy examines in packets, this method in your strategy should assign to _strategic_packet_filter a dictionary of MongoDB query as adapted for pymongo (mostly wrapping comparison operators in strings). For example, if your strategy only detects TCP packets, the {"tcp_info": {"$ne": None}} strategic filter will avoid any non-TCP packet from being included in _pt_traces and _neg_traces, simplifying the calculation of TPR and FPR. For a full list of packet information stored in MongoDB, see the end of this documentation segment for a referencing table.

  • Your strategy should contain an internal list of parameters that will vary between runs (config), which will be represented in a tuple of integer, float, or string values. This tuple must be consistently-formatted when passed into run_on_positive(), run_on_negative() and various other methods. The tuple must be the same length as the RUN_CONFIG_DESCRIPTION list, which contains descriptions for each element of this configuration tuple. You can also add other class constants as necessary.

  • You can specify through split_pt() how, if at all, positive (_pt_traces) and negative traces (_neg_traces) can be split into training/testing (_pt_test_traces) and validation (_pt_validation_traces) for overfitting checks, which are particularly useful for machine learning-based strategies.

  • positive_run(): This method defines how your strategy operates a single run on positive packets in _pt_traces. If you have opted to split traces in split_pt, you will work on _pt_test_traces and _pt_validation_traces instead. You can retrieve from _pt_collection_total the number of packets matching the user-supplied input filters but may or may not have been loaded (depending on your strategic filter) if required in TPR calculation. You should return the true positive rate of this run on the positive packets. Do not call this method directly, but call the wrapper method run_on_positive() instead to allow automatic performance recording.

  • negative_run(): This method defines how your strategy operates on negative packets between clients and non-proxy servers (_neg_traces), supplied from a collection or PCAP of “background traffic”. Configurations (or related trained classifiers) from positive runs should be applied as-is on negative traces to determine their likelihood of falsely classifying innocent packets as proxy traffic. Again _neg_collection_total provides the number of packets subject to input filters only. You also have access to _negative_unique_ips, which gives the number of unique IP addresses appearing in the background traffic. You should assign to _negative_blocked_ips a set of unique IP addresses your strategy has falsely classified as positive under the current configuration. Do not call this method directly, but call the wrapper method run_on_negative() instead to allow automatic performance recording.

  • run_strategy(): This is the entry point and main routine of your strategy. Unless your strategy only needs to run through the positive and negative datasets once, you will want to override the default code to perform additional setup work or schedule multiple runs. Each of these runs on positive and negative traces need to bear a consistently-formatted configuration (config) as described earlier. The _strategic_states dictionary can be used to store additional data that need to be persistently kept between positive and negative runs, free for manipulation by different methods within your strategy. You can initialise and use other strategy-specific class-wide states if desired.

  • run_strategy() can also receive additional runtime parameters through **kwargs, the contents of which can be requested from the user by specifying them in the strategy map (see below).

  • report_blocked_ips(): If you want users to be able to view falsely blocked packets in Wireshark, this method should return a generated string of valid Wireshark display filter. Depending on the nature of IP addresses stored in _negative_blocked_ips, you may wish to add additional conditions into the generated display filter, such as ssl && ... to only show TLS and SSL packets, or tcp.len > 64 to show TCP packets with longer than 64 bytes of payload only.

  • interpret_config(): Another config-related method, returning a human-readable description of elements of the run configuration to be included in the CovertMark summative report. Implement this method if you want a more readable description than the default key-value pairs.

  • config_specific_penalisation(): Also a config-related method. Implement this method if you need to additionally penalise a configuration by returning a penalty fraction for its large-scale deployment complexity by a state censor (which are unrelated to increases in runtime, which will have been automatically considered through execution timing in run_on_positive()). An example for an appropriate penalisation would be penalties for increased cluster size in rare TCP payload length clustering, which will be harder to deploy at large-scale as the firewall hardware will need to inspect more packets fitting the expanded payload length cluster.

Within your detection strategy module, things should operate in the following way: after initialisation (__init__), input-specific configuration (setup) and loading of required traces (load), your run_strategy should perform any additional setup work needed and process any additional runtime parameters in kwargs. It should then schedule a number of positive_run() and negative_run() based on determined list of configurations. If manual recording of performance is required, it should also call register_performance_stats() after each positive or negative run.

In addition to per-configuration performance records available for exporting and plotting by CovertMark, the strategy itself can run its own performance comparisons and report through debug_print() if desired. This may be useful for evaluating your strategy independently.

If your strategy can be used in both directions of flow, you do not need to implement this variability yourself. You can simply specify an additional strategy run with reversing filters in the strategy map, as followed.

The Strategy Map

After implementing your strategy, you need to tell CovertMark how to use your strategy to test the user’s inputs. This involves adding an entry to the strategy map (/CovertMark/strategy/strategy_map.json).

For your new strategy, you need to add an additional dictionary entry to the strategy map, with the index being the name of your strategy module (e.g. "entropy_dist" for /CovertMark/strategy/ You need the following entries in the dictionary:


Value Type




The module name of your strategy module, same as the strategy key.



The class name of the strategy class in your module.


list of lists

Each sub-list contains an identifier-qualifyi ng string of the name of a strategy-fixed parameter, as well as its corresponding value. This is rarely used.



What types of input filters are used by your strategy for positive traces, expressed in strings of "IP_SRC", "IP_DST", and "IP_EITHER" and ordered. For example, to observe client-to-server packets, use ["IP_SRC", "IP_DS\ T"]. Each represents an arbitrary number of IP addresses or subnets the user can specify of that type. For matching precedence between these types, see



Same as above, but for negative traces.



If your strategy does not require negative traces, set this to false. In most cases negative traces are needed, which means that this will be set to true.


list of dicts

See below.

Each run of a strategy in its runs require the following entries:


Value Type




A unique integer identifying this run, which normally starts from 0.



If the parent strategy has multiple available runs, a brief description on what this run is different with respect to user parameters or input filters used.



If set to true, this run will reverse the types of filters matched to the user’s client/server identification inputs on the positive PCAP, effectively switching from e.g. observing client-to-server packets to server-to-client packets.



Same as above, but for reversing the user’s client/server identification inputs on the negative PCAP.


list of lists

similar to fixed_params in the strategy-level configuration, but whose parameters are collected from the user when setting up the individual run of the strategy, allowing variations of parameters requested between different runs of the same strategy.

After the amendment of the strategy map, your strategy should be ready to use within CovertMark. However, you may wish to implement means for direct strategy class execution (through if "__name__" == "__main__":, present in all existing strategy modules) to test it independently first, to make sure that the detection techniques work properly, and any configuration-specific penalisation are properly scaled.


It was discovered during the development of the SGD classifier strategy that sometimes it may be necessary to perform the strategy run in a way unanticipated by the designed separation of positive_run() and negative_run() in the abstract class. If both positive and negative runs need to be placed within the same method, automated performance recording will become erroneous, which require manual registration of performance by calling register_performance_stats() at the appropriate points. Some other protected and private variables storing strategy states may also need to be manually updated or reset.

For machine learning-based strategies with nondeterminism, it is recommended that in addition to validating the classifier on unseen packets from the same positive and negative PCAPs as the training packets, you also use test_recall and relevant parameters in __init__ and setup, as well as recall_run to perform the same validation on a separately-recorded PCAP of the same protocol’s traffic as well (see CovertMark.strategy.sgd). This is due to the fact that unsuitable selections of traffic features can cause severe overfitting and low unseen recall performance on classifying the same proxy protocol carrying different types of traffic or under different network conditions.

Due to the need for accurate inter-packet timing in traffic shaping, input PCAPs should have at least 6 decimal places (microsecond) of accuracy in packet arrival times. This is standard for those captured with Wireshark or Linux/OS X tcpdump.

MongoDB Packet Record Format

The following are the keys and their descriptions in each dictionary representing a packet parsed, which are the elements of _pt_traces and _neg_traces lists.




Type of IP packet: v4 or v6.


Destination IP address, can be IPv4 or IPv6.


Source IP address, can be IPv4 or IPv6.


IP layer length of the packet.


Protocol of transport layer, usually TCP or UDP.


The UNIX timestamp marking the packet’s capture, with at least 6 decimal places of accuracy.


The time-to-live of IPv4 packets in ms, or the remaining hop limit of IPv6 packets.


A dictionary containing additional information for TCP packets on the transport layer, detailed blow. Value is None if the packet is not a TCP packet.

Integer value of source port.


Integer value of destination port.


A dictionary of TCP values and their set/unset (0/1) values, including FIN, PSH, SYN, ACK, URG, ECE, and CWR as keys.


A list of (option number, option value) tuples storing the packet’s TCP options.


The absolute SEQ number of the TCP packet.


The absolute ACK number of the TCP packet.


The TCP payload carried, which will be Base64-encoded when stored, but always in raw bytes when available to the detection strategy.


A dictionary containing additional information for TLS packets on the application layer, detailed blow. Value is None if the TCP packet is not a TLS packet.


The type of TLS message transmitted, one of CHANGE_CIPHER_SPEC, ALERT, HANDSHAKE, or APPLICATION_DATA.


The version of TLS protocol used, one of 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3.


The total length of all TLS records carried. Each complete TLS packet may carry several TLS records, but usually at most 2.


The total number of TLS records carried by the complete TLS packet.

A list of TLS data/payloads in each TLS record, each Base64-encoded when stored but always in raw bytes when available to a detection strategy.


A list of payload lengths matching the payloads in


A dictionary containing additional information for HTTP request packets on the application layer, which are detailed blow. Value is None if the TCP packet is not a HTTP request packet.


A dictionary storing HTTP request headers such as user-agent.


A string storing the HTTP request‘s uniform resource identifier (URI).


The version of HTTP protocol used.