What is a Honeypot and How it Protects Against Cyber Attacks?

  • By Maria
  • May 20, 2022

 honeypot cyber security

Maintaining cybersecurity is a priority for organizations and individuals alike. Statistically, cyberattacks are rising, with cybercrime strategies evolving and adapting to mitigation strategies. Two-thirds of medium-sized companies have been victims of ransomware attacks in the last 18 months. Cyberattacks can cost companies large sums of money and compromise their reputation and brand. Companies are turning to various tools and strategies to cope with increasing cyberattacks to prevent cybercrime. 

What is a Honeypot?

When exploring what is a honeypot in cyber security, it helps to think of it as a decoy. A honeypot is a tool used in cybersecurity to distract hackers from real targets while gathering information about how they work, who they are, and what they are after. To look and feel similar to legitimate targets, honeypots are designed to contain the same structure, content, and attributes as the digital assets hackers target. Their design also works to prohibit legitimate users from engaging with the honeypot.

The closer a honeypot resembles the look and feel of a legitimate area a hacker would target, the longer hackers will spend time there, allowing security experts to gather intelligence about the hackers while keeping them away from areas where they could cause real damage. Aside from keeping digital assets safe and learning more about the cyber criminals attempting to infiltrate systems, using honeypot information can be very helpful in designing cybersecurity strategies for organizations. When we weave in actual data about cyberattack attempts into prevention strategies, they are much more effective. 

Honeypot Examples

What honey potting means is best illustrated through examples:

  • Decoy Database – A copy of a database with sensitive data stripped out can be set up to attract cybercriminals. By drawing hackers and getting them to engage with them, the decoy database explores software vulnerabilities, attacks exploiting insecure system architecture, SQL injections, and SQL services exploitation. The data collected can help guide the design or improvement of an organization’s actual databases to keep them secure. 
  • Email Trap – A fake email address is placed in a hidden location where only an automated address harvester can retrieve it. This fake address is not used for anything else, so the system owner can block everything sent from this address, knowing that it is being used for hacking. The source IP of the sender can also be added to a denylist.
  • Spider Honeypot - to handle web crawler/spider hacker attempts, system admins can create links that are only accessible to them. Detecting crawlers can help companies learn how to block hacker bots.
  • Malware Honeypot – this honeypot type invites malware attacks by mimicking software applications and APIs. The malware attempts are then analyzed to create anti-malware software or button-up vulnerabilities in the API.

How Does a Honeypot Work in Cybersecurity?

honeypot

In cybersecurity, the critical principle of honeypots is that they should look and feel like a legitimate network target that an organization tries to defend. Databases, payment gateways, and any other targets containing sensitive information are excellent targets to mimic, as hackers are drawn to these environments. It is also a good idea to deliberately include some faux security vulnerabilities, though it is suggested you stay away from obvious ones. Once they are in and starting to engage with your honeypot, it is an opportunity to track their steps to learn about their tactics. Using this information in modifying security protocols and systems design can be highly effective in preventing cybercrime toward legitimate targets in your environment.

Benefits and Risks of Using a Honeypot

Aside from preventing actual attacks while gathering intelligence about cybercrime tactics, there are some additional benefits to using honeypots. Analysis of honeypot data is much more straightforward than analyzing other attempted attacks. This is due to how a honeypot attracts and tracks only hackers' activity. Analysts and security experts can skip steps that usually would help them confirm that the activity in question was hacker activity and not legitimate users. Skipping this step saves everyone time. 

Additionally, honeypots can collect and record all ongoing activities, so they can be used to observe hacking attempts over time, gathering valuable insights about cybercriminals and their constantly evolving strategies. Finally, honeypots can help spot internal as well as external threats. Occasionally, cybercrime can come from parties on the inside. Using a honeypot can help identify and stop internal cyber fraud, which is harder to catch due to employees having system access. Though honeypots provide much value, they should be treated like one component of an overall comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. If used as an isolated strategy, the honeypot will not adequately protect the organization against threats and risks. 

Using a honeypot can have its risks and drawbacks as well. If recognized by hackers as a decoy, they can try to trick you with intrusion attempts to draw attention away from actual intrusions on the legitimate system targets. Misinformation has also been known to be sent by hackers to the honeypot, which allows them to hide their identities and cause confusion in the algorithms and analysis models used. To protect against these risks, organizations must vary their monitoring, detection, and remediation strategies.

Honeypots can be an effective method of diverting cybercriminals, protecting your systems, and educating yourself about cybercrime strategies to target your organization. Honeypots must be thoughtfully designed, monitored, and protected to gain the most benefit.

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