Network security

A deep dive into network security protocols: Safeguarding digital infrastructure 2024

Infosec Institute
December 19, 2023 by
Infosec Institute

The digital threat landscape continues to evolve as bad actors design new ways of attacking networks. This makes network security protocols more important than ever because they help secure the lines of communication that power your business operations and revenue stream.

Using network security protocols as a foundation, you can build a scalable, reliable information system that supports the talent within your organization. 

Learn Network Security Fundamentals

Learn Network Security Fundamentals

Build your skills with seven hands-on courses covering network models and protocols, wireless and mobile security, network security best practices and more.

Understanding network security protocols 

Network security protocols consist of rules and frameworks designed to protect data as it moves through a network. They also structure how data gets from point A to point B, how it's received by different components and ways of keeping attackers from reading it if they intercept your communications. 

Early network security protocols were designed to prevent hackers from stealing or changing information to sabotage communications. They were effective initially, but protocols had to change as hacking techniques evolved.

Eventually, more advanced encryption algorithms were incorporated, forcing attackers to shift their approaches to compromising networks. This cat-and-mouse game has continued to evolve as network security engineers try to stay a step ahead of the attackers trying to infiltrate their systems. 

Types of network security protocols 

There are three primary types of network protocols — communication, management and security. 

  • Communication protocols are used to ensure that data travels between two endpoints without being corrupted or incomplete. 

  • Management protocols deal with the administration and control of the various resources on your network that facilitate communications. You use management protocols to control each device to ensure it transmits information how you need it to. 

  • Security protocols focus on safeguarding your data and protecting your network resources from hackers. 

Some of the most used protocols include: 

  • Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS). These cryptographic protocols ensure that communications through the Internet are kept confidential and data doesn't get compromised by attackers that could position themselves in the middle. 

  • Secure Shell (SSH). With SSH protocols, you can access devices on a network remotely without worrying about whether someone can interrupt or corrupt your communication with the network device. SSH also provides authentication services, making it even more difficult for hackers to penetrate. 

  • Internet Protocol Security (IPsec). This consists of several protocols that work together to secure communications in a network. It's common for virtual private networks (VPNs) to use IPsec to ensure that those who connect have a secure, encrypted "tunnel" to transmit and receive information. 

  • Key management protocols like Kerberos. These protocols are critical in facilitating communications between a user and a server. They also incorporate single sign-on technology, which enables people to access more than one service without having to re-enter their credentials each time. 

The role of protocols in cybersecurity 

Protocols are a strong line of defense in the battle against hackers because they prevent people from infiltrating, corrupting, stealing or taking advantage of your communication system. For instance, attackers would have difficulty wiretapping or listening in on communications because encryption would result in them only getting a jumbled set of nonsensical characters. 

Also, by setting up your security protocols correctly, you can prevent denial of service attacks. For example, you can use IPsec to require that each entity that interacts with your network goes through an authentication procedure. This would prevent hackers from randomly sending thousands or millions of requests to a server in a denial-of-service attack because they wouldn't be able to access the server in the first place. 

In addition, many phishing attacks use fake websites to trick people into entering sensitive information. You can leverage SSL/TLS Digital certificates to authenticate the validity of a site an employee may be trying to visit, which would prevent them from going to one a hacker built that only appears to be legitimate. 

Protocols also play a pivotal role in cybersecurity frameworks. These frameworks provide guidance for security engineers and their teams to help make the network environments they work with as safe and reliable as possible.

Protocols intersect with many facets of cybersecurity frameworks because the frameworks use them as tools to keep communications and data safe. Those who design cybersecurity frameworks often piece together various security protocols like components of a machine to keep the networks that use the frameworks running smoothly.

Without network security protocols, framework designers may have to code their own solutions instead of using proven, effective technologies. 

Learn Network Security Fundamentals

Learn Network Security Fundamentals

Build your skills with seven hands-on courses covering network models and protocols, wireless and mobile security, network security best practices and more.

Network security protocols in action 

There are many examples of network security protocols creating safe, reliable interactions between users and systems, especially in the business world. For instance, IPsec has been used by many organizations to create virtual private networks. Businesses have used VPNs to prevent attacks on their networks by preventing attackers from entering the communication portal in the first place. 

For example, in a 2009 study performed on VPNs that leverage IPsec, many different kinds of attack vectors were thwarted, including: 

  • Eavesdropping on data sent between those connected to the network 

  • Editing data as it gets transmitted from one place to another 

  • Launching denial of service attacks because attackers were not able to access the network secured by IPsec 

  • Man-in-the-middle attacks because the network required the authentication of different users who had to connect, which precluded the possibility of a man-in-the-middle attacker slipping in between two parties 

However, a 2023 report found that 88% of organizations are concerned about potential breaches due to VPN vulnerabilities, and nearly half of the organizations surveyed reported being targeted by cyber attackers who were able to exploit a VPN vulnerability. So, while VPNs are effective, they can be exploited like any technology. 

In addition to cybersecurity frameworks, several security tools also depend on protocols. For example: 

  • Firewalls use protocols, such as transport control protocol (TCP), to filter data packets, inspecting them for possible threats before letting them pass through 

  • Intrusion detection systems (IDS) leverage security protocols to inspect data packets in order to detect patterns that could indicate an attack. They can also examine the content of individual data packets to see if what's inside matches the profile of a known threat. 

  • VPNs, as discussed above, use IPsec to prevent unauthorized users from connecting to a network and ensuring that those who do connect don't fall victim to data thieves or eavesdroppers. 

Emerging trends and future outlook 

Network security protocols will continue to play a crucial role in facilitating smooth communications and keeping the information that travels back and forth safe from attackers. Some technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, will continue to depend on these protocols. 

Artificial intelligence-based systems must rely heavily on network security protocols to continuously transmit information safely. For example, machine learning (ML), a subset of AI, often depends on collecting data to train systems to make decisions and analyze information.

Many machine learning systems must gather this information from disparate devices spread across many miles. Thanks to network security protocols, machine learning engineers don't have to be overly concerned with hackers interrupting transmissions and inserting false information that could make their algorithms misinterpret data. 

For example, a machine learning algorithm that uses computer vision to determine how to control a vehicle depends on accurate images of other vehicles, obstacles, street signs, people, pets and other objects to figure out how to identify different things the car or truck may encounter.

Without network security protocols, a hacker could feed false information into the system, perhaps making the machine learning algorithm mistake a cat for a dog or, even worse, confuse two objects in a way that could compromise the safety of passengers. 

IoT devices also depend on network security protocols, especially wireless security protocols, to ensure secure connections between them and the servers with which they exchange information. For instance, a scanner that an employee in a factory uses to scan products as they move along the assembly line needs to transmit the data to a server that may house an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution.

With network security protocols, those who use the ERP to make business decisions don't have to worry about whether the information they get from the scanners is accurate. 

Best practices for network security protocol implementation 

To make sure you get the most out of network security protocols, it's important to use a systematic, organized approach. Each protocol has different attributes that can benefit your organization, and by choosing these strategically, you can maximize network efficiency and safety. 

This process begins with assessing your security needs. For example, suppose you have a web application that users access through an Internet connection. The web app is hosted by a server, and you want to make sure that you have strong encryption algorithms protecting the data that moves between users and the web application.

After identifying this need, you may choose to opt for a system that uses transport layer security (TLS). This would be wise because TLS provides better encryption than its predecessor, SSL. Making these kinds of decisions based on security needs puts data safety at the forefront of your strategy. 

You also want to perform regular audits and updates to ensure your protocols are the most secure and properly configured. Returning to the web application example, if, during an audit, you discover that the encryption your web application depends on is not the most up-to-date, you could then decide to update your protocol so it provides top-notch encryption. Doing this reduces the chances of a hacker getting through your system because they've found a way to crack the older encryption you were using. 

The human factor is another concern because people are often an attacker's preferred vulnerability. You complement your network security protocol strategy by periodically educating employees and others in your community regarding how to prevent or mitigate cyberattacks.

For example, even though network protocols can prevent employees from visiting fake websites, a phishing attacker can execute an assault using only email communications. Therefore, you should train employees regarding what phishing attacks look like, who to report to if they suspect an attack and what to do if they may have already revealed sensitive information. 

Challenges and considerations 

It can be challenging to balance security with network performance and user experience, especially because network security protocols may take time to process information. 

One of the most common examples of this is a firewall. Each firewall has different levels of throughput, and a firewall with inadequate throughput may not work in certain situations. For instance, if you were to use an older firewall, it may provide you with less than one gigabyte per second of throughput. In other words, it can only filter out malicious traffic if it delivers less than one gigabyte of data every second. This may be more than adequate for use in a household or a small business.

On the other hand, if you're running a high-end data center, you would want to use a firewall that gives you at least one gigabyte per second, or far more, so users who access the data center don't suffer from latency issues. 

Another key consideration is maintaining compliance with international standards and regulations. In some situations, network security protocols that work for your business may not be secure enough when put in the context of international regulations.

For example, GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) comes with strict encryption requirements, and to meet these, many organizations may have to rely on protocols like IPsec or TLS. While each situation is different, compromising security may put you out of compliance with GDPR or another data protection standard. By researching security requirements that apply to your operations, you can figure out which technologies you should use in each situation. 

Learn Network Security Fundamentals

Learn Network Security Fundamentals

Build your skills with seven hands-on courses covering network models and protocols, wireless and mobile security, network security best practices and more.

The importance of network security protocols  

Network security protocols enable your business to serve customers and employees without having information stolen or changed by attackers. Using the most recent protocols, you can ensure your defenses are as strong while satisfying international data privacy regulations. 

Building a solid foundation of networking skills and continuing to develop those skills to defend against the latest threats is critical.  

Cybersecurity needs everyone. As security gets stronger with new technology and AI, bad actors turning to humans to bypass those security measures is common. You can't consider network security without educating your entire workforce.  

Explore your learning options by reaching out today. 

Infosec Institute
Infosec Institute

Infosec’s mission is to put people at the center of cybersecurity. We help IT and security professionals advance their careers with skills development and certifications while empowering all employees with security awareness and phishing training to stay cyber safe at work and home. More than 70% of the Fortune 500 have relied on Infosec Skills to develop their security talent, and more than 5 million learners worldwide are more cyber-resilient from Infosec IQ’s security awareness training.