What Is a Honeypot in Cybersecurity?
In the world of cybersecurity, a honeypot is a sacrificial computer system that acts as a decoy for hackers to attack. By imitating a legitimate target, it attracts cyber criminals to divert their attention away from the real network or servers in the organization.
Security teams monitor the honeypot for threat actors trying to infiltrate the system and redirect the attackers away from the real target. In addition to protecting authentic systems and servers, the security teams gather information and IP addresses from hackers. This creates a honeypot spy to analyze the hackers that gained access to the network to prevent it from happening again.
To successfully lure in attackers, an effective honeypot product will run the same processes that your real network does while containing decoy files for hackers to target. This is a form of honeytrap cybersecurity that allows you to gain information on how the threat infiltrated your systems and helps you prevent future attacks from being launched from the systems the honeypot mimics.
What are the Features of Honeypot
Unlike other types of defense systems, a honeypot service is not necessarily a classic line of defense. While it may divert attention away from real targets, the purpose of this system is more about learning and gaining information to develop better defenses against a legitimate malware attack.
Essentially, a honeypot is designed to look like a real computer system with valuable information and data for hackers to steal. However, to make it seem more attractive, the honeypot system needs to look as though it contains sensitive data. Typically, credit card data or other types of personal information are used to attract hackers. To make it as realistic as possible, the honeypot is also filled with fake data - enticing hackers to break in to attempt to steal it.
Of course, this is exactly what the honeypot computer security specialists who set the trap want to happen. As the hackers are breaking into your system, the security team essentially hacks into their systems as well to learn more about their methods. This will allow your organization to take note of various malware techniques and prepare the real systems for similar attacks in the future. The purpose of this method is to further develop an organization’s Intrusion Detection System (IDS) so it can be ready for potential hacks.
Another feature of a honeypot is the vulnerabilities deliberately placed within it. Developers will intentionally create vulnerabilities within the decoy system to make it even more attractive to an attacker. This is achieved by exposing vulnerable ports. Ports provide access to systems, and when they are left open, hackers will get inside and wreak havoc. By allowing certain ports linked to vulnerabilities to be open to port scans, attackers are more likely to be lured into the trap.
Of course, hackers are also aware that cybersecurity specialists make use of honeypots to deter them from genuine targets and learn about their attack methods. Therefore, it must be attractive enough to draw attention while still being subtle and seemingly authentic enough to avoid suspicion.
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Production Honeypots And Research Honeypots
Generally speaking, cybersecurity specialists leverage two types of honeypots that each have a different purpose. Production honeypots are used to identify weaknesses in an organization’s existing internal networks. A research honeypot, on the other hand, has a slightly broader list of uses. A research honeypot is used to collect information on how a cybersecurity threat may operate in a more general or broader context. This allows you to develop a security system that can effectively defend itself against the cyber-attacks that the original honeypot attracted.
Complexities and Types of Honeypots
Network cybersecurity specialists may choose to adopt honeypots of different complexities and types depending on the purpose.
Levels of Honeypot Complexity
There are four main levels of its complexity:
- Pure Honeypot - This is a full-scale system that runs on multiple servers and is made to look almost exactly like the real thing. It incorporates decoy databases and is designed to copy the production system. For IT specialists’ purposes, this type includes sensors that pick up any kind of cyber-attack and then track and analyze the activity.
- High-Interaction Honeypot - This is the most complex form. It aims to force hackers into spending a significant amount of time within the system to gain as much knowledge about the attack as possible. The longer the hackers are active in the system, the more information the security team can gather to analyze. To keep the hackers occupied, these honeypots will often include additional systems, databases, and processes that the hackers will be tempted to explore.
- Mid-Interaction Honeypot - This is a far less detailed one and is designed to distract and stall attackers. While part of the application layer is mimicked, it does not have an actual operating system. This means that while hackers may be fooled initially, it won’t be long before the honeypot is suspected. This does, however, give the IT specialists a small head start in defending the system against the attack.
- Low-Interaction honeypot - Using Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP), they are quicker and easier to set up than the other three. While these are far more basic, they do the job. They will distract the hackers briefly but are essentially empty. This means that they don’t provide security teams with much useful research nor do they keep hackers distracted for very long. However, they still serve as useful diversions.
Different Types of Honeypots for Enterprise Cybersecurity
In addition to different levels of complexity, different types of them should be explored as well:
- Database honeypot - It works with database-specific attacks and is generally implemented using a database firewall. Decoy databases are utilized to deceive attackers through methods like SQL injections.
- Malware honeypot - These imitate attack vectors that are known to attract and lure in malware - such as a Universal Serial Bus (USB). This tricks the attacker into targeting the fake vector.
- Spam honeypot – This email honeypot uses mail relays and open proxies to attract attackers and tricks them into sending out emails to test if the spam would potentially be successful. Security specialists detect this activity and subsequently prevent the attacker’s spam from being circulated.
- Honeynet - A honeynet, a more complicated system, is a network of multiple different honeypots. Honeynets study different types of attacks, including attacks on a Content Delivery Network (CDN), Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS) and Ransomware attacks. When a honeynet is in use, IT specialists ensure that both inbound and outbound traffic is observed and contained so that the rest of the organization’s data remains protected.
- Client honeypots – These are used to pose as a client so that the security team can observe how the hackers operate during an attack. They target attacks that are typically used to hack clients.
Deception technology refers to advanced versions of honeypots and honeynets, which are often combined with other technologies like next-generation firewalls (NGFWs), IDSes, and secure web gateways. It incorporates automated capabilities that enable a honeypot to react instantly to potential attackers. Deception technology focuses on the automated deployment of honeypot resources across large organizations.
Advantages of Honeypots for Cybersecurity
- Attacks are easier to detect. Since a honeypot isn’t going to receive regular, ordinary traffic, there will be far less activity, and, therefore, malicious activity is a lot easier to detect.
- Honeypots are light on resources. Since they do not handle much traffic, they require very few resources in terms of both hardware and software. When it comes to hardware, it may even be possible to use old computers that are not much used for more complicated programs. In terms of software, many security vendors offer off-the-shelf honeypot programs, reducing the amount of in-house effort that is required to set things up.
- Fewer false-positive alerts. Due to low levels of traffic, they produce far fewer false-positive security alerts, allowing cybersecurity teams to direct their efforts appropriately.
- Provides information on new threats. As we’ve seen, certain types of honeypots provide IT teams with knowledge of how specific types of attackers operate, allowing them to be more prepared for potential future hacks.
- May be used for training cybersecurity staff. A honeypot provides a controlled and safe environment in which staff can be taught how cybersecurity attacks happen in real life without risking the security of existing programs and servers.
- Protection against both internal and external threats. Unlike ordinary firewalls, they have the potential to detect and defend against both external and internal attacks – such as a disgruntled employee attempting to steal data.
Dangers of Using Honeypots
- Limited scope. They are only able to detect attacks that are directed at them specifically, so they are not able to see everything that’s going on.
- Not all hackers will be fooled. If an attacker detects that they are in a honeypot, they may very well move on to legitimate systems and cause real damage.
- It can be used against you. If a honeypot is detected, an attacker may attempt to fool you into thinking that they have fallen into your trap while distracting you from their real attack on your actual systems.
- It can only serve as a component of your cybersecurity. While other detection systems such as firewalls may be used on their own, honeypots cannot and may, in the worst-case scenario, be used as an entry point for attackers. Therefore, they need to be used in conjunction with other systems.
Honeypots are multifaceted cybersecurity defense mechanisms that provide security teams with protection from malicious attacks while also providing information for potential future attacks. While they do come with certain risks and issues, the benefits of using them outweigh the dangers. When used correctly, they are proven to be extremely beneficial for your organization’s cybersecurity.