What is a honeypot? How does it secure your SMB?

understanding honeypot and honeynet

What is a honeypot? How does it secure your SMB?

  Cyvatar | 05/23/2022

Luring cyber attackers by showing them a ‘real-looking’ computer system is a cybersecurity strategy that organizations should equip themselves with, and the use of such a decoy system is what we are discussing in this article.

Let us understand what a honeypot is, how it works, its uses, the different types, its benefits, and its limitations. 

What is a honeypot?

The words ‘honeypot’ and ‘honeytrap’ are common parlance in the world of espionage. It refers to spies using the guise of romantic relationships to steal state secrets- honeypot espionage, you can call it that.

In cybersecurity, a cyber honeypot works in a similar way, where hackers are lured in by creating a virtual trap. It uses an intentionally compromised computer system that allows attackers to exploit vulnerabilities to use it to study and improve upon the security policies. 

Honeypot can be applied to any computing resource such as software, networks, file servers, and routers. 

Honeypot example

Think of a production system that doesn’t have any sensitive data about the organization or its customers. For example, a fully functioning banking site, but one that doesn’t connect to real data.

This is a honeypot if the intention is to use the fake site to lure cyber attackers into doing what they do best: attack.

You can use a honeypot to detect ransomware or even for analyzing and extracting an Intrusion Detection System (IDS).

What is a honeypot used for?

They are used to capture information from unauthorized users who are tricked into accessing them since they appear to be a legitimate part of the network.

Many large enterprises and companies that are involved in cybersecurity research use honeypots to defend themselves against advanced persistent threats (APT).

It is one of the most effective tools that large corporations use to learn about the tools and strategies used by attackers. 

It requires special skills to expose the network of an organization while preventing attackers from gaining access to the systems. Therefore, maintaining honeypots can be an expensive affair.

Honeypots aren’t used to address any problem as such, the objective is to use it to gather information about how attackers operate, thereby shielding the organization from any attacks in the future. 

How does a honeypot work?

The honeypot mimics real computer systems, thereby fooling cybercriminals into thinking that they are in front of a legitimate target.

Once the hackers gain access to the system, they are tracked, especially their behavior inside the network. They are assessed for clues on strategies that can be employed to make the real network more secure.

The attackers are lured inside by making the vulnerability in the honeypot look attractive. Think of them as honeypots for malware, but for cyber terrorists.

honeypot's place in a network

Honeypots are usually put up in a demilitarized zone (DMZ) on the network. The modus operandi is to keep it away from the main production network while still being able to monitor it from a distance.

Honeypots are frequently hosted on virtual machines (VMs). If the honeypot is compromised by malware, for example, it can be rapidly restored.

A honeynet is made up of two or more honeypots on a network, whereas a honey farm is a centralized collection of honeypots and analysis tools.

They can also be placed outside the external firewall to detect any attempts to access the internal network. The placement strategy of the honeypot depends on what you want to attract, and how close it is stationed to the production environment. 

Based on the activity in the honeypot, you can draw conclusions about the level and types of threats that the network infrastructure faces.

Hackers can also hijack the honeypots and use them against the organization that has deployed them. They use it to gather intelligence about the organization.

By monitoring the traffic that comes from honeypot cybersecurity systems, the organization can get access to the following:

  • The level of threat to the system
  • Where the hackers come from
  • Their method of attack
  • What data and applications in the network they are interested in
  • What are the security measures that are stopping them from gaining access

Types of Honeypots

There are two main types of honeypots classified based on their design and deployment. 

1. Research

These honeypots analyze the hackers’ activities closely to try to find out their paths and progression so that they can be better protected. The identifiable data inside the honeypot helps the analysts track stolen data and identify the perpetrators.

2. Production

These types of honeypots are deployed inside the production networks as a decoy. It is a part of the intrusion detection system (IDS) and its objective is to draw the attention of the hackers away from the production network.

Production honeypot security is made to look as if it is a part of the production network. 

It ends up taking up a lot of time for the attackers and gives the administrators enough time to assess the level of threat and see if there are any vulnerabilities in the real production systems.

There are different types of honeypots based on the threat type being addressed. Let us look at them.

  • Spam trap: It is an email address that is used to monitor spam emails. It is also considered a honeypot since it uses fake email addresses to lure spammers.

    Spam traps are used to collect Internet Protocol addresses, email addresses, and other information on the hackers. Doing so will reduce the amount of spam on the websites. 
  • Decoy database: It is set up to monitor software vulnerabilities and to secure and spot attacks that exploit the architecture of the system. 
  • Spider: It traps web crawlers by creating web pages that are accessible only by crawlers. Doing so will help you understand more about how malicious bots can be blocked.
  • Honeynet: They consist of a network of honeypots. With a number of honeypots forming a honeynet, different types of attacks can be studied, including distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks, ransomware attacks, content delivery network (CDN) attacks, and so on.

  • Client: They attract malicious servers that hackers use while hacking clients. These honeypots pose as clients to observe how the attackers modify the servers during an attack.

    Client honeypots run in a virtualized environment and have containment protection to reduce exposure risks.
  • Malware: These honeypots mimic software applications and APIs to invite malware attacks. Anti-malware software is developed by analyzing the malware’s characteristics. 

There are honeypots that are deployed to allow hackers to perform different levels of malicious activity. They are classified in the following ways:

  • Pure: They monitor attacks by bugging taps on the link between the honeypot and the network. 
  • Low-interaction: They mimic services and systems that attract the attention of criminals. They collect data from blind attacks such as botnets and worms’ malware.

    They use fewer resources to gather information about the level and type of threat. With basic simulated TCP and IP protocols, it is easy to set up, but you won’t get in-depth information.
  • High-interaction: This type of honeypot provides extensive cybersecurity insights. Since these are complex setups, they can be highly expensive to maintain.

    They have to use additional technologies such as virtual machines to ensure that attackers don’t get access to the real system.

    High-interaction honeypots aim to get the hackers to spend a lot of time with the honeypot to gather information about their modus operandi.

Benefits of using honeypots in cybersecurity

  1. They are resource-light

Since they don’t ask for a lot on the hardware side, you can set up honeypots even using old computer systems. There are a lot of readily available honeypots that you can get from online forums. Therefore, the effort involved in setting up and the resources required are less. 

  1. They have a low false-positive rate

Intrusion detection systems (IDS) are known for their high level of false alerts. Honeypots, on the other hand, have a low false-positive rate. It helps prioritize the efforts required and the resource demand from honeypots is kept at a minimum level.

By leveraging the data collected from honeypots and collaborating with other systems such as firewall logs, the IDS can be configured to produce fewer false positives. Therefore, it can be implied that honeypots in network security can refine the results of other cybersecurity systems.

  1. Collects real data

The data that honeypots gather is data from actual attacks and other unauthorized activities, so cybersecurity professionals get to lay their hands on precious information. 

  1. Shows the evolution of threats

Honeypots provide information about exploits, malware, attack vectors, spammers, phishing traps, and so on.

The attack methods of hackers keep changing, and honeypots gather information about them in such a way that you will not only keep finding out the latest exploits and threats but also about the change in their methods. 

  1. Identifies internal threats

Since most organizations spend their resources and budget on warding off external threats, they forget about attackers who have already gained access.

If the hackers have gained inside access, then they can do any amount of damage. This is where honeypots can put a stop to it, especially in areas such as permissions where insiders can exploit the system.

  1. Acts as a great training tool for security professionals

Honeypots are maintained in a controlled and safe environment. The intention is to observe the attackers from a distance, find out how they gained entry, what they are trying to do inside the system, how they work, and examine the different types of threats in front of you. 

The security staff can examine this without worrying about real users or systems being compromised.

  1. Test incident response process

Honeypots can be effectively used to see how your security team reacts to attacks. The effectiveness of your security systems can be analyzed based on the team’s response to see if there is any weakness in the security policies that are in place.

Hire a proactive team with outcome-based cybersecurity

Honeypot limitations

Despite the multitude of benefits that honeypots offer, they cannot detect security attacks in real production systems. They do not always identify the attacker. Let us look at some of the honeypot limitations.

  1. Isolated network

The malicious traffic captured is collected when an attack targets the honeypot network. If the hackers suspect that they are in a honeypot network, they will go to the next target. 

  1. Easily distinguishable

Experienced hackers can identify the differences between a real production system and a decoy by using fingerprinting techniques. 

  1. Risks to the production systems

Even though the honeypot systems are isolated from real production systems, they are connected in some way to enable administrators to gather information.

High-interaction honeypots are considered riskier than low-interaction honeypots, as the former’s objective is to lure hackers into gaining root access.

  1. Does not replace IDS

Even though researchers do learn about the threats in systems using honeypots, it is not a replacement for IDS. If the organization fails to configure the honeypots correctly, the attackers can gain access to real production systems and start attacking. 

In a nutshell

Cyber attacks will keep evolving, and honeypots can be an effective tool to understand the threats involved. While it is not possible to anticipate attacks, honeypots provide enough information about how to be best prepared, and it is also a great way for organizations to collect data about would-be attackers on their real production systems.

The combined benefits of honeypots outweigh the risks. By using honeypots, you can monitor the threats of the hackers and use this information to stop what they were planning to do.

Alternatively, you can get in touch with a team of skilled and experienced cybersecurity professionals.

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