4 Ideas for Operationalizing Honeypots

I’ve always thought that the concept of a honeypot was one of the most fascinating things in information security. If you aren’t familiar with honeypots, they are basically traps used to detect or deter attackers on a network. They typically come in two forms; low interaction and high interaction. A low interaction honeypot is software that emulates a set number of services that may run on a computer. When an attacker connects to a low interaction honeypot, he/she will be able to interact with that service on a limited basis, and that interaction will be logged. A high interaction honeypot is more robust and emulates all aspects of an operating system. This is most often a deployed operating system running a number of legitimate services with an extensively level of logging enabled. The thing both of these implementation methods have in common is that the honeypot doesn’t actually contain real data. Should an attacker compromise either type of honeypot, there is no real direct risk of critical data being exposed when deployed properly.

Almost every single honeypot implementation I’ve seen deployed is for research purposes. There isn’t anything wrong with a research honeypot, after all, I run a couple myself (at home) and have learned a lot from it. However, I think there is a lot of operational value that can be gained from deploying honeypots in production environments. I wanted to discuss, at a high level, a few of these strategies and the benefit that can be gained from them.

Honeypots for Prevention

There has been a fair amount of talk recently about security mechanisms designed to drive up the cost of exploiting a network by increasing the time it takes to do so. As a matter of fact, Adobe’s Senior Directory of Product Security and Privacy, Brad Arkin, even recently said that “My goal isn’t to find and fix every security bug. It’s to drive up the cost of writing exploits. We invest a lot of time in building up mitigations that increase the cost and complexity of writing exploits that will become reliable.” Of course, Arkin was referring to the exploitation of software, but the concept still applies to the network side of the house. I’m still a firm believer that your detection capability is still the most important because prevention eventually fails, but if you can drive up the cost of exploiting a network this has the potential to deter some attackers. At a minimum deterring attacks of opportunity can be achieved if you can increase the time cost of exploiting a network, and this may even work to deter attacks of choice as well.

Honeypots can do this by adding to the frustration factor. I see a couple of ways this can be done. The first of which is to utilize a  large number of low interaction honeypots with varying configurations. The important thing here is to vary their configurations as much as possible in order to prevent an attacker from characterizing them and automating them out of their window of visibility. For instance, if you deploy twenty honeypots and they all have ports 22, 80, and 3306 open and all provide the same responses to banner grabs, an attacker is going to be able to correlate this pretty quickly and will simply scan and exclude those hosts from his list of potential targets. The other method for preventive use is to deploy a significant number of high interaction honeypots. This requires a significant time investment, but the right configuration can cause an attacker to waste a significant amount of time in the right places. Again, this strategy isn’t going to prevent aggressive adversaries from reaching their goal, but it will drive up the time cost of lesser determined foes.

Honeypots for Attack Sense and Warning

This is the sacrificial lamb approach to honeypot deployment. In this scenario, honeypots are deployed based upon trust zones within your network. There are different strategies for outlining trust barriers but on a simple network you might define a low trust zone within a wireless or user space network segment, a medium trust zone in a DMZ, and a high trust zone within a server farm network segment. In that sort of topology, all three zones would contain honeypots configured with security comparable to the next step lower. The idea here is that the honeypot should be slightly more vulnerable to attack than everything else in the zone that it is currently in. This configuration provides value in a couple of ways. First, if a honeypot gets compromised, it will likely serve as a warning that other assets within that trust zone may be compromised soon as well, if they aren’t already. Taking this one step further, it is often logical to assume that if a lower trust zone honeypot becomes compromised, the next highest trust zone may be the next target. Depending on how the network is setup, if a higher trust zone includes a honeypot that gets compromised, it could mean that all of the trust zones below it could also have fallen victim to the adversary. This whole model relies on a lot of assumption, but that is the space AS&W operates in.

Honeypots for Detection Related to Critical Assets

I’m a big fan of target-based IDS deployment where instead of deploying a single IDS to your network perimeter, you user more focused IDS’s with finer tuned rule sets and place them closer to organizationally critical assets. This allows for better use of resources across the board as it usually requires less beefy hardware and ensures your analysts won’t see nearly as many false positives. For instance, if your critical data is housed in SQL servers on a single network segment, then deploy an additional IDS to that segment and only utilize SQL focused signatures there rather than on the perimeter IDS. This also allows you to prioritize IDS sensors so that alerts generated by sensors in high priority areas are given priority when it comes to investigations.

I think the same concept of target-based deployment can be tied to Honeypot deployments in the protection of critical assets. If your organization has prioritized their assets (and they should have), then the general idea behind target based honeypot deployment for the purpose of detection would be to configure and deploy honeypots that are virtually identical to the critical servers. This means that they should be running the same services,  talking to the same hosts, and vulnerable to the same types of attacks. The thought here is that if the critical server gets compromised, then so should the honeypot, and vice verse. This is valuable because it isn’t always feasible to log everything on a production server based upon its volume of traffic. This applies to both host based and network based logging. Utilizing an identically configured honeypot that doesn’t see the same amount of utilization allows you to use more aggressive logging, which may allow you to gain more visibility into an attackers movements. This can provide value in helping you determine exactly how an attacker has compromised a system, what they are utilizing the same for, if there is particular data they may be after, and if they have compromised any other systems on the network.

Reverse Honeypots for Intelligence Collection

Although the concept of a reverse honeypot is a bit radical, it really appeals to me considering the industry I work in. The concept of a traditional honeypot is that in which you fill a pot with honey and hope the attacker gets attracted to the honey and sticks his hand in the pot. A reverse honeypot is where you throw some honey in the direction of a target in such a manner as to leave a trail back to the source. The idea being that the target will notice, follow the trail, see the pot, and stick his hand in. In more practical terms, this means that you would attempt to attack a target elsewhere on the Internet. This attack doesn’t necessarily have to be successful and it may just constitute something as simple as a port scan or something as overt as a DoS attempt. During these attacks, no masking of your source IP address should occur and no third party hop points would be used, thus meaning that the target would see your true IP address when reviewing logs of your attack on his network. Given the nature of your target, this may result in his curiosity being peaking and him reciprocating your attack back at you in another form. Of course, within your network you have several vulnerable honeypots of varying interaction levels waiting for the target.

This type of honeypot is solely for the purpose of target based intelligence gathering, but has the potential to be very effective. First and foremost, should the target scan or attack your network you should be able to capture some of the tools, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) that he is using. This type of intelligence can help in recognizing, characterizing, or attributing other computer network exploitation activity to this attacker and may also lend to better detection techniques in the future. One more added value which is incredibly attractive in the modern threat landscape is the identification of hops points. Although you very purposefully did not mask your true source IP address, the attacker may choose to do so. It’s incredibly common for attackers to compromise other hosts elsewhere on the Internet to launch their attacks from, but it’s also common that they will reuse these same hop points for an extended amount of time. If you can identify these hop points then you can use that information to attribute the attacks to a particular operator or group. This is extremely valuable. Of course, this type of activity should be done from non-production networks, because it’s very possible that you might lure an attacker into launching a large scale DDoS attack on your network 10,000 bots strong.


I think there is a lot of room for operationalizing honeypots in production environments. The major factors prohibiting this are a lack of research in this area and a lack of production-grade tools for implementing these techniques. Unfortunately, we are still in a time that IDS is having trouble gaining traction because of the cost it entails, so a future where honeypots can be deployed for the purpose of enhancing network security seems far off. Don’t be surprised however, if you seen a job posting five years down the road for “Honeypot Administrator”. I know I’d have one if I could.

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