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How Honeypots Support Defensive Security Efforts

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Did you know? Honeypots are deceptive security tools that emulate IT infrastructures to collect cyber-threat intelligence, contributing to improved defences against cyberattacks.

Here's everything your organization needs to know about both what honeypots are and the havoc they can wreak on your cybersecurity:

What Are Honeypots?

Honeypots are deceptive IT security technology that emulates real IT infrastructure in order to gain cyber-threat intelligence (CTI) for the purpose of improving defenses. Honeypots are deployed and monitored as decoy devices meant to attract cyberattacks and are usually deployed as a network-accessible IP address with available services, or valuable files on an endpoint but can also take other forms. 

Honeypot deployment contributes to an organization's intrusion detection capabilities and can reduce malware dwell time, breaking the cyber-attack kill-chain earlier in the lifecycle. Defenders deploying honeypots monitor for any activity that an intruder has tried to access it, indicating an internal network is compromised, or to collect attack data that can be forensically analyzed to understand what specific attack strategies a threat actor is employing. 

How Honeypots Benefit Cybersecurity

  • Deter Attacks: When attackers become aware that a network is designed to monitor and capture their activities, they are less likely to target it

  • Divert The Efforts Of Threat Actors: By engaging with a honeypot, attackers waste their resources and efforts on a decoy system that has no impact on the actual production servers

  • Facilitate Learning: A well-designed and configured honeypot provides valuable insight into the tactics and methods employed by attackers, which can be used for educational purposes and improving security measures

  • Detect Insider Threats: Honeypots can be instrumental in identifying insider attacks by providing detailed information on the behaviour and patterns used by insiders, which traditional Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS) might struggle to detect

  • Create Confusion for Attackers: The phony data hosted on honeypots can confuse and mislead attackers, discouraging them and motivating them to move on to easier targets

The Different Types Of Honeypots

There are broadly two types of honeypots; production and research.

Production honeypots are deployed within an enterprise's internal network to attract the attention of threat actors who have gained an initial foothold. Since honeypots do not serve a real functional purpose within the network, any attempts to access the decoy services can be assumed to be suspicious. On the other hand, research honeypots are typically deployed on public-facing IP addresses and serve to help collect cyber-threat intelligence including specific attacker tactics and techniques, zero-day exploits, and malware. However, beyond these two broad classifications, honeypots can be configured to imitate virtually any type of device and improve the security of any type of IT environment.

Some other common types of honeypots include:

  • Honeypot Tripwire: A honeypot device is deployed on an available IP address and appears to have legitimate services enabled. The most common purposes of the honeypot are as a tripwire for suspicious activity or to collect intelligence such as collecting malware, usernames, and passwords used by attackers, or tracking attacker behavior.

  • Honeynet: Designed as a network of virtual or physical devices that emulate real-world systems, honeynets mimic the functionality of actual production environments such as file shares, RDP and VPNs, and database clusters, but are intentionally configured with vulnerabilities. The primary purpose of a honeynet is to record the activities of attackers and provide evidence of their techniques, strategies, and behaviors. This intelligence is then used to enhance an organization's security posture.

  • Honeytoken / Honey Creds: Honey tokens are static data elements, such as fake database entries email addresses, certificates and PKI, API keys, usernames, and passwords that are embedded within information systems lying in wait to be picked up by an attacker. Because honeytokens are not used in legitimate operations, their use can indicate unauthorized access to a system or other malicious behavior.

  • Honeytrap Campaign: In contrast, the term "honeytrap" is sometimes used to describe a full-fledged cyber warfare operation aimed at a specific target with the intention of extracting critical information. While honeypots are passive decoy systems designed to detect and analyze attacks, honeytraps involve active engagement with the target, often through social engineering using social media and fake websites.

  • ICS/SCADA Honeypots: Designed to mimic the distinct protocols, behaviors, and characteristics of Industrial Control Systems (ICS) and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, this type of honeypot is critical for the management and monitoring of industrial processes such as power generation, water treatment, manufacturing, and other critical infrastructure. 

Conclusion

Honeypots are deceptive security mechanisms that emulate genuine IT infrastructures to lure attackers and gather intelligence.

Through simulated systems and data, honeypots are strategically placed to attract cyberattacks, enabling organizations quickly detect a network intrusion or analyze and understand attackers’ tactics, techniques, and procedures resulting in quicker response times and better defensive strategies. Honeypots come in various forms, including honeynets, which are networks of virtual devices; honeytokens, which are decoy data elements, specialized ICS/SCADA honeypots, and may be deployed as offensive operational campaigns to gather adversarial information.

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