What is a honeypot in cybersecurity?

A honeypot is a cybersecurity defense technology that detects, lures, tracks, and analyzes unauthorized access to a website, computer systems and networks, or applications.

The term honeypot originates from espionage and security contexts and has been adapted as a cybersecurity defense technique. The name "honeypot" is derived from the idea of attracting bees (a.k.a. adversaries) with honey (a.k.a. fake access and useless data). In espionage and intelligence operations, a honeypot is a trap or a deceptive operation designed to attract and capture spies or enemies. The idea is to create an appealing target that entices individuals to reveal their true intentions or engage in activities that could be monitored or controlled. That same principle is applied to a honeypot as part of a threat intelligence gathering operation. 

What is a Honeypot?

The concept behind a honeypot is to create a tempting target that appears to be a legitimate and valuable resource, enticing potential attackers to interact with it. However, the honeypot contains no real information, and it is isolated from your actual production systems to ensure that any activity is closely monitored and doesn't pose a real threat to your critical assets.

The purpose of a cybersecurity honeypot is to attract malicious actors and gather information about their tactics, techniques, and procedures. By observing and analyzing the behavior of attackers within the controlled environment of the honeypot, you can gain insights into their methods and use that information to better defend against real-world threats. Security professionals call this threat intelligence.

Are There Different Types of Honeypots?

There are many types of honeypots, but the most common are categorized as either high or low interaction. A low-interaction honeypot is one that, once found by the hacker, will be of little use to them. In some cases, the attacker is presented with a login prompt they cannot get past. The honeypot then logs and stores these attempts by the attacker to log in. The honeypot provides information on the attacker's IP address of origin, which can sometimes be attributed to a location, and the username and password that were used in the login attempt.

On the other hand, a high-interaction honeypot allows the attacker to go further to gather additional information about their intentions. The honeypot is constructed to encourage the attacker to log in with a designated set of usernames and passwords and stores any command the attacker attempts to use. A high-interaction honeypot often simulates the Secure Shell (SSH) service, a program used for authentication and secure communication, and can measure all SSH login attempts.

Other types of honeypots include:

Production Honeypots: These are deployed within a network to gather information about attacks, methods, and potential vulnerabilities. They mimic the behavior of real systems and applications to lure attackers into revealing their techniques. Production honeypots are primarily used for research and analysis of threats and are not directly part of the organization's operational infrastructure.

Research Honeypots: These are often used by security professionals and researchers to gain insights into the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by attackers. Research honeypots can be either low-interaction or high-interaction. Low-interaction honeypots simulate only a limited set of services and interactions, while high-interaction honeypots replicate a wider range of services and behaviors, providing a more accurate view of attacker behavior.

How Do Honeypots Work?

Honeypots act as traps to lure in potential attackers and gather information about their techniques, tools, and motives. There are several key steps to a successful honeypot defense strategy. They include:

Deployment: Honeypots are intentionally created to appear as vulnerable or enticing targets. They can be standalone systems or virtual machines within a network. These systems may mimic real services, applications, or devices to make them seem attractive to attackers.

Imitation of Vulnerabilities: Honeypots are often configured with security vulnerabilities or misconfigurations to make them seem like easy targets. This could involve using outdated software, weak passwords, or unpatched systems.

Isolation: Honeypots are typically isolated from critical production systems to prevent attackers from moving laterally within the network or causing real damage. They might be placed in a separate network segment or virtual environment.

Monitoring and Logging: Honeypots are closely monitored to record all activities and interactions. This includes network traffic, login attempts, commands executed, and any changes made by the attacker. These logs provide valuable insights into attack methods and patterns.

Alerts and Responses: When an unauthorized user accesses the honeypot, it triggers alerts to security administrators. This allows them to assess the situation, analyze the attacker's behavior, and respond accordingly.

Deception and Delay: Honeypots can be designed to delay attackers, keeping them engaged and wasting their time. This can provide security teams with more opportunities to gather information and potentially track the attacker's movements.

Data Collection and Analysis: The information collected from honeypots helps security professionals understand attack techniques, tools, and motivations. This data can be used to refine security measures, update intrusion detection systems, and develop countermeasures against new threats.

Forensics and Attribution: Honeypots can assist in attributing attacks to specific individuals, groups, or nations based on the methods and patterns they exhibit when interacting with the honeypot.

Active and Passive Honeypots: Active honeypots interact with attackers, allowing them to perform actions and gather more information about their tactics. Passive honeypots, on the other hand, simply observe and log activities without engaging with the attacker.

Overall, honeypots play a crucial role in understanding and mitigating cyber threats. They offer insights into attacker behavior, enhance incident response capabilities, and contribute to overall cybersecurity strategies.

What Are the Benefits of Using Honeypots?

The benefits of honeypots include:

  • Threat Intelligence: Honeypots provide real-time and accurate information about emerging threats and attack methods.
  • Early Detection: By attracting attackers, organizations can identify potential threats before they can reach critical systems. In a managed detection and response environment, security researchers often set up honeypots in a controlled manner and then study them as part of 24/7 threat and response services.
  • Understanding Attacker Behaviors: Honeypots allow security professionals to study attacker behavior, tools, and tactics, which can inform defensive strategies.
  • Diversion from Real Assets: Honeypots divert attackers' attention away from valuable assets, giving defenders more time to respond effectively.

Overall, honeypots can be valuable tools for understanding and defending against cyber threats, but they should be used with a clear strategy, proper planning, and a thorough understanding of the associated risks.

What’s an Example of a Successful Honeypot Operation?

SophosLabs first discovered the Chalubo bot family through an attack on one of our honeypots, which we use to collect and analyze data on malicious activity. The Chalubo botnet, which incorporates malware such as Xor.DDoS and Mirai, was first discovered by our SophosLabs researchers in early September 2018. Security researchers created a honeypot server that was designed to appear vulnerable to distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and other threats to capture information about the botnet. They were able to learn that one of Chalubo’s key components was a downloader, a Lua command script and the main bot, which was optimized for hardware running Intel x86 processors.

Our cybersecurity researchers also learned that the bots attempted to leverage brute force login credentials against an SSH server. The SophosLabs honeypots presented the attacker with the appearance of a real shell that accepts a wide range of credentials.

Final Thoughts on Honeypots

While honeypots themselves don't directly protect sensitive data, they can contribute to your overall cybersecurity strategy by diverting attackers, enabling early threat detection, and providing valuable insights into attack techniques.

At Sophos, our experts leverage honeypots in lab environments often. We monitor both behavior and network traffic generated by honeypots and share what we find with our customers and the security community at large.

In 2019, we set up and studied ten cloud-based server honeypots placed worldwide to understand more about how adversaries gain access to systems. The results of this global study revealed the need for visibility and security to protect what businesses put into hybrid and all-cloud platforms. To learn more, download a free copy of our report, “Exposed: Cyberattacks on Cloud Honeypots.”

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Related security topic: What is a firewall?