Signature Framework

Zeek relies primarily on its extensive scripting language for defining and analyzing detection policies, but it also provides an independent signature language for doing low-level, Snort-style pattern matching. While signatures are not Zeek’s preferred detection tool, they sometimes come in handy and are closer to what many people are familiar with from using other NIDS. This page gives a brief overview on Zeek’s signatures and covers some of their technical subtleties.


Let’s look at an example signature first:

signature my-first-sig {
    ip-proto == tcp
    dst-port == 80
    payload /.*root/
    event "Found root!"

This signature asks Zeek to match the regular expression .*root on all TCP connections going to port 80. When the signature triggers, Zeek will raise an event signature_match of the form:

event signature_match(state: signature_state, msg: string, data: string)

Here, state contains more information on the connection that triggered the match, msg is the string specified by the signature’s event statement (Found root!), and data is the last piece of payload which triggered the pattern match.

To turn such signature_match events into actual alarms, you can load Zeek’s base/frameworks/signatures/main.zeek script. This script contains a default event handler that raises Signatures::Sensitive_Signature Notices (as well as others; see the beginning of the script).

As signatures are independent of Zeek’s scripts, they are put into their own file(s). There are three ways to specify which files contain signatures: By using the -s flag when you invoke Zeek, or by extending the Zeek variable signature_files using the += operator, or by using the @load-sigs directive inside a Zeek script. If a signature file is given without a full path, it is searched for along the normal ZEEKPATH. Additionally, the @load-sigs directive can be used to load signature files in a path relative to the Zeek script in which it’s placed, e.g. @load-sigs ./mysigs.sig will expect that signature file in the same directory as the Zeek script. The default extension of the file name is .sig, and Zeek appends that automatically when necessary.

Signature Language for Network Traffic

Let’s look at the format of a signature more closely. Each individual signature has the format signature <id> { <attributes> }, where <id> is a unique label for the signature. There are two types of attributes: conditions and actions. The conditions define when the signature matches, while the actions declare what to do in the case of a match. Conditions can be further divided into four types: header, content, dependency, and context. We discuss these all in more detail in the following.


Header Conditions

Header conditions limit the applicability of the signature to a subset of traffic that contains matching packet headers. This type of matching is performed only for the first packet of a connection.

There are pre-defined header conditions for some of the most used header fields. All of them generally have the format <keyword> <cmp> <value-list>, where <keyword> names the header field; cmp is one of ==, !=, <, <=, >, >=; and <value-list> is a list of comma-separated values or value-ranges to compare against (e.g. 5,7-10 for numbers 5 to 10, excluding 6). The following keywords are defined:

src-ip/dst-ip <cmp> <address-list>

Source and destination address, respectively. Addresses can be given as IPv4 or IPv6 addresses or CIDR masks. For IPv6 addresses/masks the colon-hexadecimal representation of the address must be enclosed in square brackets (e.g. [fe80::1] or [fe80::0]/16).

src-port/dst-port <cmp> <int-list>

Source and destination port, respectively.

ip-proto <cmp> tcp|udp|icmp|icmp6|ip|ip6

IPv4 header’s Protocol field or the Next Header field of the final IPv6 header (i.e. either Next Header field in the fixed IPv6 header if no extension headers are present or that field from the last extension header in the chain). Note that the IP-in-IP forms of tunneling are automatically decapsulated by default and signatures apply to only the inner-most packet, so specifying ip or ip6 is a no-op.

For lists of multiple values, they are sequentially compared against the corresponding header field. If at least one of the comparisons evaluates to true, the whole header condition matches (exception: with !=, the header condition only matches if all values differ).

In addition to these pre-defined header keywords, a general header condition can be defined either as:

header <proto>[<offset>:<size>] [& <integer>] <cmp> <value-list>

This compares the value found at the given position of the packet header with a list of values. offset defines the position of the value within the header of the protocol defined by proto (which can be ip, ip6, tcp, udp, icmp or icmp6). size is either 1, 2, or 4 and specifies the value to have a size of this many bytes. If the optional & <integer> is given, the packet’s value is first masked with the integer before it is compared to the value-list. cmp is one of ==, !=, <, <=, >, >=. value-list is a list of comma-separated integers or integer-ranges similar to those described above. The integers within the list may be followed by an additional / mask where mask is a value from 0 to 32. This corresponds to the CIDR notation for netmasks and is translated into a corresponding bitmask applied to the packet’s value prior to the comparison (similar to the optional & integer). IPv6 address values are not allowed in the value-list, though you can still inspect any 1, 2, or 4 byte section of an IPv6 header using this keyword.

Putting it all together, this is an example condition that is equivalent to dst-ip ==,

header ip[16:4] ==,

Note that the analogous example for IPv6 isn’t currently possible since 4 bytes is the max width of a value that can be compared.

Content Conditions

Content conditions are defined by regular expressions. We differentiate two kinds of content conditions: first, the expression may be declared with the payload statement, in which case it is matched against the raw payload of a connection (for reassembled TCP streams) or of each packet (for ICMP, UDP, and non-reassembled TCP). Second, it may be prefixed with an analyzer-specific label, in which case the expression is matched against the data as extracted by the corresponding analyzer.

A payload condition has the form:

payload /<regular expression>/

Currently, the following analyzer-specific content conditions are defined (note that the corresponding analyzer has to be activated by loading its policy script):

http-request /<regular expression>/

The regular expression is matched against decoded URIs of HTTP requests. Obsolete alias: http.

http-request-header /<regular expression>/

The regular expression is matched against client-side HTTP headers.

http-request-body /<regular expression>/

The regular expression is matched against client-side bodys of HTTP requests.

http-reply-header /<regular expression>/

The regular expression is matched against server-side HTTP headers.

http-reply-body /<regular expression>/

The regular expression is matched against server-side bodys of HTTP replies.

ftp /<regular expression>/

The regular expression is matched against the command line input of FTP sessions.

finger /<regular expression>/

The regular expression is matched against finger requests.

For example, http-request /.*(etc/(passwd|shadow)/ matches any URI containing either etc/passwd or etc/shadow. To filter on request types, e.g. GET, use payload /GET /.

Note that HTTP pipelining (that is, multiple HTTP transactions in a single TCP connection) has some side effects on signature matches. If multiple conditions are specified within a single signature, this signature matches if all conditions are met by any HTTP transaction (not necessarily always the same!) in a pipelined connection.

Dependency Conditions

To define dependencies between signatures, there are two conditions:

requires-signature [!] <id>

Defines the current signature to match only if the signature given by id matches for the same connection. Using ! negates the condition: The current signature only matches if id does not match for the same connection (using this defers the match decision until the connection terminates).

requires-reverse-signature [!] <id>

Similar to requires-signature, but id has to match for the opposite direction of the same connection, compared to the current signature. This allows to model the notion of requests and replies.

Context Conditions

Context conditions pass the match decision on to other components of Zeek. They are only evaluated if all other conditions have already matched. The following context conditions are defined:

eval <policy-function>

The given policy function is called and has to return a boolean confirming the match. If false is returned, no signature match is going to be triggered. The function has to be of type function cond(state: signature_state, data: string): bool. Here, data may contain the most recent content chunk available at the time the signature was matched. If no such chunk is available, data will be the empty string. See signature_state for its definition.

payload-size <cmp> <integer>

Compares the integer to the size of the payload of a packet. For reassembled TCP streams, the integer is compared to the size of the first in-order payload chunk. Note that the latter is not very well defined.


Evaluates to true if the source address of the IP packets equals its destination address.

tcp-state <state-list>

Imposes restrictions on the current TCP state of the connection. state-list is a comma-separated list of the keywords established (the three-way handshake has already been performed), originator (the current data is send by the originator of the connection), and responder (the current data is send by the responder of the connection).

udp-state <state-list>

Imposes restrictions on which UDP flow direction to match. state-list is a comma-separated list of either originator (the current data is send by the originator of the connection) or responder (the current data is send by the responder of the connection). The established state is rejected as an error in the signature since it does not have a useful meaning like it does for TCP.


Actions define what to do if a signature matches. Currently, there are two actions defined:

event <string>

Raises a signature_match event. The event handler has the following type:

event signature_match(state: signature_state, msg: string, data: string)

The given string is passed in as msg, and data is the current part of the payload that has eventually lead to the signature match (this may be empty for signatures without content conditions).

enable <string>

Enables the protocol analyzer <string> for the matching connection ("http", "ftp", etc.). This is used by Zeek’s dynamic protocol detection to activate analyzers on the fly.

Signature Language for File Content

The signature framework can also be used to identify MIME types of files irrespective of the network protocol/connection over which the file is transferred. A special type of signature can be written for this purpose and will be used automatically by the Files Framework or by Zeek scripts that use the file_magic built-in function.


File signatures use a single type of content condition in the form of a regular expression:

file-magic /<regular expression>/

This is analogous to the payload content condition for the network traffic signature language described above. The difference is that payload signatures are applied to payloads of network connections, but file-magic can be applied to any arbitrary data, it does not have to be tied to a network protocol/connection.


Upon matching a chunk of data, file signatures use the following action to get information about that data’s MIME type:

file-mime <string> [, <integer>]

The arguments include the MIME type string associated with the file magic regular expression and an optional “strength” as a signed integer. Since multiple file magic signatures may match against a given chunk of data, the strength value may be used to help choose a “winner”. Higher values are considered stronger.

Things to keep in mind when writing signatures

  • Each signature is reported at most once for every connection, further matches of the same signature are ignored.

  • The content conditions perform pattern matching on elements extracted from an application protocol dialogue. For example, http /.*passwd/ scans URLs requested within HTTP sessions. The thing to keep in mind here is that these conditions only perform any matching when the corresponding application analyzer is actually active for a connection. Note that by default, analyzers are not enabled if the corresponding Zeek script has not been loaded. A good way to double-check whether an analyzer “sees” a connection is checking its log file for corresponding entries. If you cannot find the connection in the analyzer’s log, very likely the signature engine has also not seen any application data.

  • As the name indicates, the payload keyword matches on packet payload only. You cannot use it to match on packet headers; use the header conditions for that.

  • For TCP connections, header conditions are only evaluated for the first packet from each endpoint. If a header condition does not match the initial packets, the signature will not trigger. Zeek optimizes for the most common application here, which is header conditions selecting the connections to be examined more closely with payload statements.

  • For UDP and ICMP flows, the payload matching is done on a per-packet basis; i.e., any content crossing packet boundaries will not be found. For TCP connections, the matching semantics depend on whether Zeek is reassembling the connection (i.e., putting all of a connection’s packets in sequence). By default, Zeek is reassembling the first 1K of every TCP connection, which means that within this window, matches will be found without regards to packet order or boundaries (i.e., stream-wise matching).

  • For performance reasons, by default Zeek stops matching on a connection after seeing 1K of payload; see the section on options below for how to change this behaviour. The default was chosen with Zeek’s main user of signatures in mind: dynamic protocol detection works well even when examining just connection heads.

  • Regular expressions are implicitly anchored, i.e., they work as if prefixed with the ^ operator. For reassembled TCP connections, they are anchored at the first byte of the payload stream. For all other connections, they are anchored at the first payload byte of each packet. To match at arbitrary positions, you can prefix the regular expression with .*, as done in the examples above.

  • To match on non-ASCII characters, Zeek’s regular expressions support the \x<hex> operator. CRs/LFs are not treated specially by the signature engine and can be matched with \r and \n, respectively. Generally, Zeek follows flex’s regular expression syntax. See the DPD signatures in base/frameworks/dpd/dpd.sig for some examples of fairly complex payload patterns.

  • The data argument of the signature_match handler might not carry the full text matched by the regular expression. Zeek performs the matching incrementally as packets come in; when the signature eventually fires, it can only pass on the most recent chunk of data.


The following options control details of Zeek’s matching process:

  • dpd_reassemble_first_packets

    If true, Zeek reassembles the beginning of every TCP connection (of up to dpd_buffer_size bytes, see below also), to facilitate reliable matching across packet boundaries. If false, only connections are reassembled for which an application-layer analyzer gets activated (e.g., by Zeek’s dynamic protocol detection).

  • dpd_match_only_beginning

    If true, Zeek performs packet matching only within the initial payload window of dpd_buffer_size. If false, it keeps matching on subsequent payload as well.

  • dpd_buffer_size

    Defines the buffer size for the two preceding options. In addition, this value determines the amount of bytes Zeek buffers for each connection in order to activate application analyzers even after parts of the payload have already passed through. This is needed by the dynamic protocol detection capability to defer the decision of which analyzers to use.

So, how about using Snort signatures with Zeek?

There was once a script, snort2bro, that converted Snort signatures automatically into Zeek’s (then called “Bro”) signature syntax. However, in our experience this didn’t turn out to be a very useful thing to do because by simply using Snort signatures, one can’t benefit from the additional capabilities that Zeek provides; the approaches of the two systems are just too different. We therefore stopped maintaining the snort2bro script, and there are now many newer Snort options which it doesn’t support. The script is now no longer part of the Zeek distribution.