Honeypots are a tremendously helpful technique that IT teams can use to thwart and outsmart potential attackers. But what is a honeypot in cyber security, and what are some of the types and use cases of honeypots? We’ll review everything you need to know in this comprehensive guide to honeypots in cyber security
What Is a Honeypot in Cyber Security?
A honeypot is a simulation of an IT system or software application that acts as bait to attract the attention of attackers. While the honeypot appears to be a legitimate target, it is actually fake and carefully monitored by an IT security team. The term “honeypot” comes from the fact that this decoy serves as a “sweet” trap for attackers—recalling the old proverb “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”
What Is the Purpose of a Honeypot in Cybersecurity?
There are multiple purposes of a honeypot in cyber security:
- Distraction: Honeypots can serve as a valuable distraction for attackers. The more time and effort malicious actors spend on honeypots, the less time and effort they can devote to attacking real targets.
- Threat intelligence: Honeypots can trick malicious actors into revealing their attack methods and tools. By closely monitoring how the attackers behave when trying to infiltrate the honeypot, IT teams can better understand how to defend against these attacks.
- Research and training: Honeypots can be an environment for IT security professionals and students to perform research and training. The honeypot serves as a safe “training ground” to observe and study different types of cyberattacks.
What Are the Different Types of Honeypots?
Honeypots come in many shapes and sizes, depending on the type of attack that IT teams are interested in. Below are just a few different types of honeypots you should know.
An email trap is a honeypot intended to collect spam and other malicious emails. IT teams create a fake, publicly available email address, exposing it to cybercriminals. The messages sent to this address can be immediately flagged as potential spam or malicious content.
A decoy database is a honeypot that offers fake information to attackers, luring and misleading them during an attack. While the contents of this decoy database may appear authentic, they are actually useless or even harmful to the attacker. The decoy serves as a distraction for attackers, preventing them from discovering real and valuable data.
A malware honeypot is a decoy specifically intended to capture malicious software by imitating a vulnerable system or network, such as a web server. This type of honeypot has been set up with security flaws that are known to invite malware attacks. IT teams can then analyze the malware to understand its behavior and identify its origins.
A spider honeypot is a decoy designed for software that crawls the web, also known as “spiders.” IT teams create fake websites or pages susceptible to Internet-based attacks, such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS). These flaws attract malicious robots that scan websites for vulnerabilities, looking for potential targets.
High-Interaction vs. Low-Interaction Honeypots
When it comes to honeypot security, one distinction is between high-interaction and low-interaction honeypots:
- High-interaction honeypots are decoys of fully functional systems, completely mimicking a real IT device or application. As the name suggests, these honeypots let attackers interact with them as real entities, providing a full range of privileges and access. High-interaction honeypots let IT teams capture more information about attackers’ techniques but are more complex to set up and maintain.
- Low-interaction honeypots are simulations of IT environments that only implement certain applications or services, giving attackers only a limited set of interactions. This means that low-interaction honeypots are easier to create, less resource-intensive, and less realistic and informative.
Physical vs. Virtual Honeypots
Another key difference in the types of honeypots is the distinction between physical and virtual:
- A physical honeypot, as the name suggests, is a physical IT device or system connected to a network with its own IP address. Physical honeypots can achieve greater verisimilitude but are less frequently used due to the cost involved.
- A virtual honeypot simulates an operating system or application hosted on a virtual machine. Virtualization allows IT teams to quickly spin up and deploy new honeypots but does not allow organizations to capture attacks that exploit physical vulnerabilities.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Honeypots
The advantages of using honeypots in cybersecurity include the following:
- Early detection of attacks: Honeypots can provide warning of new or previously unknown cyberattacks, letting IT security teams respond more quickly and effectively.
- Wasted time and effort: Honeypots can cause attackers to waste time and effort on a decoy target, distracting them from launching attacks on real IT systems.
The disadvantages of using honeypots in cybersecurity include the following:
- Attracting too much attention: If attackers realize that they have fallen victim to a honeypot, they may seek to retaliate by continuing their assault on the organization’s legitimate targets.
- Resource-intensive: Honeypots require plenty of resources and expertise to set up properly, which means their return on investment may be low.
Best Practices for Implementing Honeypots
When implementing honeypots, not all approaches are created equal. Below are some honeypot cyber security best practices:
- Proper configuration and maintenance: Honeypots must be set up correctly and regularly maintained to remain an attractive target for attackers.
- Integration with other security systems: Honeypots are most effective when integrating with other IT security tools and practices.
- Regular monitoring: The IT security team needs to keep tabs on the honeypot to discover when an attack is underway.
What Are the Real-World Applications of Honeypots?
Honeypots are one of the most effective defenses that IT teams and organizations have against malicious actors. Below are just a few real-world use cases of honeypots in cybersecurity:
- Government and military: Government and military institutions may use honeypots to distract attackers from high-value targets. Honeypots can protect critical infrastructure such as power grids and communication networks
- Financial industry: Financial companies are high-profile targets, which makes honeypots an especially effective tactic for these businesses. Honeypots can be used to detect fraudulent financial activity or attempts to steal customer data.
- Protecting intellectual property: Businesses that need to protect their IP can use honeypots to distract and contain attackers.
How to Learn More About Honeypots
The topics above have just scratched the surface of honeypot cyber security. If you want to learn more about honeypot security and other IT techniques, it’s an excellent idea to deepen your knowledge with a cybersecurity certification. EC-Council’s C|EH (Certified Ethical Hacker) certification gives students the right combination of theoretical knowledge and practical skills they need for a job in the field of ethical hacking. The C|EH course provides real-world training in the latest enterprise-grade ethical hacking tools, techniques, and methodologies, including how to implement honeypots.
About the Author
David Tidmarsh is a programmer and writer. He’s worked as a software developer at MIT, has a B.A. in history from Yale, and is currently a graduate student in computer science at UT Austin.