True to their name, honeypots are traps designed to lure hackers into attacking a server or system as defenders gather information about their methods. According to SANS, honeypots are “setup to be easier prey for intruders than true production systems but with minor system modifications so that their activity can be logged or traced.” These traps often produce a wealth of knowledge security professionals can use to strengthen their defenses.
Despite the great advantage they provide, however, honeypots are not deployed as widely as the once were. Defenders are busier than ever, and honeypots are complex—specifically, they’re difficult to deploy quickly. As Greg Martin from ThreatStream explained in an article he wrote last week for Power Magazine, “Many organizations see honeypots as too complicated to launch and manage over time, and view them primarily as a tool for security researchers.”
Honeypots also offer only a limited use case. Lance Spitzer of WindowSecurity.com elaborates on this problem. “Honeypots all share one huge drawback; they are worthless if no one attacks them. Yes, they can accomplish wonderful things, but if the attacker does not send any packets to the honeypot, the honeypot will be blissfully unaware of any unauthorized activity.”
Haroon Meer, founder and researcher at Thinkst, says honeypots can be a useful tool to be proactive in an era known for large-scale breaches of security. As the public becomes more aware of these security breaches, companies involved need quicker disclosure. Meer says honeypots could be a huge help toward that effort. “We need honeypots to come back because we can’t have people finding out they’re breached because Brian Krebs writes about it,” Meer said during a presentation at BlackHat USA 2015.
Meer and his presenting partner Marco Slaviero explained that–in addition to the reasons above–honeypots have fallen out of favor for not being “preventative” security solutions. In a cyber arms race, they said, defenders are falling too far behind in terms of tools available. “It’s not an arms race, we’ve already lost,” Meer said. “Just look at OPM.” Honeypots, he explained could be a tool that makes the arms race more competitive.
According to Slaviero and Meer, honeypots are a great addition to any organization’s security posture as “even one alert from a honeypot is valuable.” To prove this value, the two created an enterprise tool called Canary, a series of honeypots that send notifications when attackers hit them. These “canaries” are also specifically designed to entice an attacker to explore further, giving defenders a better profile of who they are dealing with. The pair also discussed the open source version, OpenCanary. OpenCanary is a low-interaction honeypot, which reduces risk and makes it easier to deploy, as it does not use a real OS or applications.
Honeypots are a good idea Slaviero and Meer said, just “largely ignored by the industry.” With the advent of a new tool like Canary and OpenCanary, this may soon change. As Spitzer commented in his article, “honeypots will not solve an organization’s security problems. Only best practices can do that. However, honeypots may be a tool to help contribute to those best practices.”