Honeypots and Cybersecurity: How They Work

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A honeypot is a fictitious computer system used in cyber security to entice and trap hackers. It mimics real systems, running processes and storing seemingly important dummy files.

These systems can provide valuable intelligence about attackers, their tools and techniques. It can help inform preventative defenses, patch prioritization and future investment in cybersecurity.

What Is a Honeypot?

A honeypot is a decoy system that lures cyber attackers into thinking they’re attacking a real computer network. It looks like a legitimate system and may contain real data, such as credit card numbers or personal information. The IT team then monitors the device, identifying when an attack is happening and catching a hacker in action.

The system can be completely fake or mimic a production server. The best honeypots look as realistic as possible, running processes and containing dummy files that seem important to the attacker. The best honeypots are placed behind your firewall, allowing them to be monitored without disrupting the normal flow of traffic on your main network.

They are also light on resources, so they don’t make a big demand for hardware. Many vendors offer off-the-shelf honeypot programs, reducing the in-house effort needed to set them up.

A honeypot’s data reveals a lot about hackers’ tactics to penetrate your network. It can fill in detection gaps around lateral movement and other types of activity that are difficult to detect with a firewall alone. The information is valuable because it can help you understand existing threats and spot new ones before they become a problem. It can also reveal where your security efforts need to be focused.

Production Honeypots

With a production honeypot, a cybersecurity team lures hackers by mimicking the data on real systems. These traps can be simple or complex and are designed to appeal to the interests of the hacker, such as offering a fake database of information. The attacker’s time and resources are spent on the phony system, which can divert them from attacks on live systems. The information gathered by the honeypot can be used to inform preventative defenses, patch prioritization and other security mechanisms. It reduces false positives: Unlike threat detection tools that alert security teams to every possible attack, honeypots only notify them of attacks directed at them. It saves a considerable amount of time and resources.

Gathering information from these honeypots can help a company develop better anti-malware software and improve other security measures. However, a company needs to use these traps wisely and carefully consider the risks and ramifications of doing so. For example, tricking hackers into downloading systems that reveal their identities can violate anti-hacking laws.

Some honeypots can be resource-intensive and difficult to maintain, but their insight is well worth the effort. Low-interaction honeypots offer hackers emulated services with a narrow level of functionality on a server. A high-interaction malware honeypot can imitate full systems with a fully functional operating system. It may be designed to draw the attention of a hacker for an extended period.

Research Honeypots

The simplest honeypots act as decoy systems inside fully operating networks and servers to lure cyberattackers away from your plans. They’re often filled with fake data, such as credit card information, to entice attackers and capture their activity. It gives network cybersecurity specialists valuable insight into how attacks operate and what vulnerabilities they exploit.

There are several research honeypots, each with different complexities and deployment models. A pure honeypot, for example, is a complete production system that combines sensors and trackable data to help you identify and mitigate threats. Other research honeypots mimic specific software apps or APIs to trap malicious malware. The characteristics of this malware can then be analyzed to develop anti-malware software and close associated security holes.

Low-interaction honeypots typically imitate basic simulated services and networks, requiring only a small amount of hardware and software to set up. They also produce fewer false-positive alerts, enabling IT teams to focus their efforts. More advanced high-interaction honeypots simulate complex IT services with actual operating systems, in either hardware or virtualized on computers. They don’t restrict the level of an attack so that they can provide more extensive cybersecurity insights. They may require dedicated machines to create the illusion of a real IT service. They’re designed to draw hackers in and engage them for longer, revealing their tactics and tools.

High-Interaction Honeypots

In a network, the security team can’t monitor every threat that enters. It is where honeypots come in. These decoy systems can mimic various network services, including databases, to attract hackers and gather information on the attacks they attempt to carry out. Depending on an organization’s goals and the assets they wish to protect, they may deploy low or high-interaction honeypots. Low-interaction honeypots are simple to set up and can be used with minimal risk and disruption to the existing network. They log attack activity without exposing an operating system to the attacker, and they can be used to spot malicious attempts to access other sensitive areas of the network.

Medium interaction honeypots are a little more complicated but can be used to gather valuable intelligence on an attacker. They are typically deployed in the network to capture attackers trying to gain access by searching for misconfigured or vulnerable systems. They can be a great tool for identifying attackers, tracking stolen data and discovering if attackers are communicating with one another. While most organizations spend their time defending the perimeter, this doesn’t help with internal threats or attacks which breach a firewall. Honeypots can be used to identify these attacks and allow the security team to react quickly, potentially preventing them from getting into the critical areas of their organization.

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