PhD Thesis (UMUDGA) - Mattia Zago - PhD

PhD Thesis - UMUDGA

Enhancing DGA-based botnet detection beyond 5G with on-edge machine learning

Executive Summary

Notwithstanding the scientific community's efforts and results, malwares are still wreaking havoc of computer networks; among these threats, botnets are growing at an alarming rate and have been responsible for dangerous attacks. Indeed, in the past five years, notorious botnets such as Mirai, Roboto, or Kraken have been a primary target of the cybersecurity community. However, independently from the purposes of these malwares, the botnets are characterised by a common point of failure, i.e., the communication channel. Infected devices need to reach out to the command and control (C&C) servers to download second-stage infections, perform malicious actions, or await further commands. As the infected devices are already connected to the internet, TCP/IP connections have been widely abused, notwithstanding the providers' efforts in blacklisting IPs and sinkholing fully qualified domain names (FQDNs). Domain generation algorithms (DGAs) have grown to a conventional approach to elude detection algorithms by generating pseudo-random rendezvous-points, i.e., the C&C servers FQDNs. Although many machine learning (ML)-oriented frameworks have been theorised to identify and intercept DGAs, the problem is yet to be solved. As such, this PhD thesis's scope is to analyse the DGAs' outputs, named alghoritmically generated domain names (ADGs), to provide a set of ML tools and privacy-aware methodologies that help identify these evasive patterns.

To be more precise, the objectives achieved throughout this research are twofold. On the one hand, this thesis aims to provide a characterisation of the DGAs aspects, including, among others, a comprehensive survey of previous literary contributions, data sources, and ML-based approaches to detection. On the other hand, it aims to integrate and improve the state-of-the-art by providing methods, strategies, and technologies to enable DGA-based botnet detection at scale. Specifically, signature patterns are identified in malicious ADGs using natural language processing (NLP) techniques and deployed as detection modules on the network's farthest edges.

As a result, this research encompasses literary surveys, theories and frameworks crafting, experiments design and evaluations, and knowledge gaps identification and discussions. Under the compendium modality, the three chapters composing this PhD dissertation are outlined as follows.

  1. Firstly, a state-of-the-art survey on ML approaches to DGA-based botnet detection; the first chapter reports on supervised and unsupervised algorithms, their features sets, the definition of use cases and experiments, and, ultimately, the outline of multiple research challenges to guide the thesis. Eventually, the experimental findings lay the foundations for ADGs formal and verifiable study.
  2. Secondly, a comparative analysis of the data sources to power ML frameworks; the second chapter reports on the published datasets by providing a formal comparison and discussion on multiple orthogonal properties. In the same article, the UMUDGA dataset is introduced as the most complete, balanced, and up-to-date collection of DGAs-related data, featuring 50 malware classes for a total of 30+ million FQDNs. Eventually, the exploratory analysis reported in the article suggests that ML solutions to precisely pinpoint the malware variant based on ADGs pattern recognition are feasible.
  3. Thirdly, a virtualised, proof-of-concept framework where the detection of DGA-based botnets is deployed as a security service on edge; the third chapter compares and examines architectural EAI approaches to enable scalable detection in 5G networks and beyond. In the article, the experimental evaluation demonstrates that ADG detection is not only reasonable and achievable, but it is also plausible to expect to have deployed such detection capabilities on the networks' edges and eventually on the user equipments (UEs)

In summary, the chapters composing this PhD dissertation promote cohesive research exploring, analysing, and ultimately tackling the DGA-based botnets. Following this Ariadne's thread, each chapter is self-contained and provides critical insights on the research challenges from a different perspective; together, these contributions depict a clear description of the research niche summarised in the thesis. However, although conclusive on the explored subjects, some questions mooted by this research remain unsolved. Prime among them is whether it will be feasible to provide anonymous, exchangeable, and trustworthy profiles of ADGs to enable collaborative and federated detection models without harming users' privacy.

Key aspects


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PhD Thesis - UMUDGA


Project codename
Thesis ·
Source Code ·
Dataset ·
July, 22nd 2021
Manuel Gil Pérez ·
Gregorio Martínez Pérez ·
European experts
Georgios Kambourakis ·
Jose M. Such ·
Examining board
Víctor A. Villagrá ·
Lorenzo Fernández Maimó ·
Michele Carminati ·


Visiting PhD


Domain generation algorithms ·  Machine learning ·  Security as a service ·  Natural language processing ·  Edge AI ·  5G ·  B5G