Definition of Honeypots

A cybersecurity honeypot is a decoy security mechanism designed to attract cyber attackers so that security researchers can see how they operate and what they might be after. The honeypot, typically isolated from the organisation’s primary production environment, serves as bait to lure attackers into engaging with the system without endangering the organisation’s data.

Honeypots are intentionally established to appear vulnerable and enticing to attackers, mimicking a legitimate target such as a network, server, or application. When the honeypot lures in attackers, security analysts can gather information about their identities, methods of attack, and the tools they use. An organisation can then use this information to improve its cybersecurity strategy, identify potential blind spots in the existing architecture, and prioritise and focus security efforts based on the techniques used or the most commonly targeted assets.

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How Honeypots Work

Honeypots leverage a manufactured attack target to lure cybercriminals away from legitimate targets, enabling cybersecurity teams to monitor them and misdirect adversaries from actual targets.

By mimicking real-world systems—financial databases, IoT devices, or even broader network configurations—honeypots are seemingly vulnerable targets that are isolated and monitored closely. Any engagement with a honeypot is typically considered suspect since there’s no real operational purpose for legitimate users to interact with it.

The magic of honeypots lies in their ability to deceive hackers. When attackers engage with these decoys, they unknowingly reveal their strategies, tools, and intentions. Security teams get a firsthand look at potential threats, allowing them to study the methods of attackers in a controlled environment.

In essence, honeypots act as digital tripwires and distractions. They divert malicious entities away from real assets while providing invaluable insights into potential vulnerabilities and emerging threats. By understanding and analysing interactions with honeypots, organisations can bolster their cybersecurity defences in a more informed and proactive manner.

History of Honeypots

The concept of honeypots has existed since the late 1980s and early 1990s. The idea was first documented in two publications in 1991: “The Cuckoo’s Egg” by Clifford Stoll and “An Evening with Berferd” by Bill Cheswick. But it wasn’t until 1997 that Fred Cohen’s Deception Toolkit was released, which was one of the first honeypot solutions available to the security community. A year later, in 1998, development began on CyberCop Sting, one of the first commercial honeypots sold to the public.

Honeypots have evolved over time, and modern deception technology involves traps and decoys strategically placed around critical systems. Once an attacker has penetrated a honeypot, these decoy systems observe, track, and sometimes counterattack to attack them.[1] Gartner Research identified deception technology as an “emerging technology” in 2016 that is becoming “market-viable”.[2]

Types of Honeypots

Different types of honeypots can be used in a cybersecurity strategy. Some of the most common types include:

  • Production honeypots: These honeypots are positioned alongside genuine production servers and run the same kinds of services. Production honeypots pinpoint compromises in internal networks while deceiving malicious actors.
  • Research honeypots: Research honeypots provide valuable information about a cybercriminal’s latest attack techniques and tools. They can be used to improve security measures and develop new defence strategies.
  • Low-interaction honeypots: This type of honeypot allows partial interaction with systems since they run limited emulated services with restricted functionality. Low-interaction honeypots are an early detection mechanism organisations commonly use in production environments.
  • High-interaction honeypots: High-interaction honeypots are more complex and allow attackers to interact with a real operating system. They’re more resource-intensive and require more maintenance than low-interaction honeypots.
  • Pure honeypots: Pure honeypots refer to a full-scale system running on various servers. It completely mimics the production system. User information and data are manipulated to appear confidential and sensitive, and various sensors track and observe threat actor activity.
  • Client honeypots: This type of honeypot is established to simulate vulnerable client systems, such as web browsers or email clients. Client honeypots can be used to detect and analyse client-side attacks.
  • Virtual honeypots: These honeypots are virtual machines that simulate a real system. They can be used to detect and analyse attacks on virtualised environments.

Each type of honeypot has specific use case applications and subsequent strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, organisations should carefully evaluate their objectives and resources when designing a honeypot strategy.

Benefits of Honeypots

Honeypots are a valuable tool in a cybersecurity strategy and offer several benefits to organisations.

  • Early detection of attacks: Honeypots can provide early warning of new or previously unknown cyberattacks, allowing IT security teams to respond more quickly and effectively.
  • Improved security posture: They can significantly improve an organisation’s security posture by providing increased visibility and allowing IT security teams to defend against attacks the firewall fails to prevent.
  • Distraction for attackers: Honeypots are a valuable distraction for attackers. More time and effort consumed with honeypots means less effort devoted to legitimate targets.
  • Gathering intelligence on attackers: Honeypots effectively gather intelligence on attackers, including their methods, tools, and behaviour. This information can be used to improve an organisation’s cybersecurity strategy and develop new defence strategies.
  • Testing incident response processes: A honeypot helps organisations test their incident response processes and identify areas for improvement.
  • Refining intrusion detection systems: Honeypots help refine an organisation’s intrusion detection system (IDS) and threat response to better manage and prevent attacks.
  • Training tool for security staff: Honeypots can be used as a training tool for technical security staff to show how attackers work and examine different types of threats in a controlled and safe environment.

Deploying Honeypots & Deception Technologies

Gartner Research Vice President Augusto Barros stated while honeypot technology and other security deception solutions can be effective at spotting an intruder and blocking any further damage, companies must take several steps before greenlighting the adoption of a “distributed deception platform (DDP)”. [3]

Other best practices for deploying honeypots and deception technologies include:

  • First, establish one test before deploying honeypots or deception technologies in a production environment.
  • Fine-tune false positives and negatives to avoid alert fatigue and ensure the system detects real threats.
  • Use a distributed deception platform (DDP) that involves traps and decoys strategically placed around key systems.
  • Deploy deception technologies beyond honeypots to the endpoint, server, and device to gather information across the production environment.
  • Use deception tools that are inexpensive to set up and maintain and require minimal effort to configure and manage.
  • Ensure that the honeypot is isolated from the organisation’s primary production environments, serving as bait to lure attackers into engaging with it without endangering the organisation’s data.
  • Create one or more honey users and configure honey files on a shared network.
  • Manage honey alerts to ensure that the system is detecting real threats.

By following these best practices, organisations can effectively deploy honeypots and deception technologies to improve their cybersecurity strategy and identify potential blind spots in the existing architecture.

Challenges and Limitations of Honeypots

While honeypots can be invaluable cybersecurity tools, they can pose several challenges and limitations.

  • Limited Scope: Honeypots only capture threats that interact with them. If attackers target other parts of the network and avoid the honeypot, the threat may go undetected.
  • Maintenance: Honeypots require continuous updates to mimic real systems convincingly. Experienced attackers might easily recognise an outdated honeypot.
  • Potential misuse: If not properly isolated or secured, attackers can exploit honeypots as a launch point for further network attacks.
  • False sense of security: Relying solely on honeypots might lead organisations to overlook other essential security measures, leading to potential vulnerabilities.
  • Resource intensive: Setting up, managing, and analysing data from honeypots can be resource-intensive, requiring both time and expertise.
  • Risk of detection: Sophisticated attackers might recognise and avoid honeypots, making them ineffective against advanced threats.
  • Data overload: Honeypots can generate vast amounts of data, which can be challenging to analyse effectively, especially if there are numerous false positives.
  • Skill requirement: Deploying and managing honeypots requires expertise to ensure they are effective and do not introduce additional vulnerabilities.
  • Potential for escalation: Engaging with certain attackers might lead them to escalate their efforts, potentially leading to more aggressive attacks on the organisation.

Understanding these limitations and challenges is essential for organisations considering deploying honeypots, ensuring they are used effectively within a broader cybersecurity strategy.

Honeypot Use Cases and Examples

Honeypots have been used in various scenarios to study and counteract malicious activities. Here are some use cases and corresponding examples based on popular types and applications:

  • Research honeypots analyse how a new strain of malware spreads or study botnet behaviour. Example: Universities or cybersecurity research organisations may deploy honeypots to gather data on malware propagation, attacker techniques, or emerging threats.
  • Production honeypots protect sensitive customer data by diverting attackers to the decoy server. Example: A financial institution might set up a honeypot mimicking a transaction server to attract attackers and monitor their strategies.
  • IoT honeypots understand threats specific to IoT devices, such as particular malware strains or exploitation techniques. Example: A company deploying multiple IoT devices creates a mock IoT device network as honeypots.
  • Database honeypots attract and detect attackers targeting sensitive or proprietary data. Example: A decoy database filled with fabricated data but mimicking the structure of a genuine one.
  • Web application honeypots identify web-based attack techniques like SQL injection or cross-site scripting attempts. Example: A fake e-commerce website or web portal that appears vulnerable.
  • Spam honeypots (Spampots) study spam campaigns, phishing attempts, or malicious attachments. Example: An email server explicitly designed to attract and capture spam emails and malware.
  • Client honeypots collect and analyse new malware variants or understand the infrastructure of cybercriminal networks. Example: A system set up to actively engage with malicious servers to gather malware samples or study exploit kits.
  • Honeytokens detect unauthorised access or data breaches when these fake credentials are used. Example: A fabricated user credential or API key sprinkled within a system.

By deploying honeypots in these diverse scenarios, organisations can gain insights into potential threats, improve their security posture, and better protect their genuine assets.

Future of Honeypot Technologies

While several companies have developed products to build deception technology, including honeypots, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have been researching where deception technology is going next. UT Dallas has developed the DeepDig (DEcEPtion DIGging) technique that plants traps and decoys onto real systems before applying machine learning techniques to better understand a malware attacker’s behaviour. The technique is designed to use cyber-attacks as free sources of live training data for machine learning-based intrusion detection systems (IDS). These decoy systems act as a honeypot so that once an attacker has penetrated a network, security teams won’t just be notified but can fight back.[4]

Additionally, the future of honeypot technologies may also involve more intricate distributed deception platforms (DDPs). These platforms involve traps and decoys strategically placed around key systems, allowing organisations to gather information across the production environment. This strategy enables organisations to identify threats with greater precision and allocate their security resources by concentrating on the methods employed or the assets most frequently attacked.

How Proofpoint Can Help

Proofpoint offers a range of cybersecurity solutions to use with honeypots to improve an organisation’s cybersecurity posture. These solutions include email security, cloud security, threat intelligence, and security awareness training.

By using Proofpoint’s solutions, organisations can improve their ability to detect and respond to cyber threats, including those detected by honeypots. Proofpoint’s solutions can help organisations identify potential blind spots in their existing architecture and prioritise and focus security efforts based on the techniques being used or the most commonly targeted assets. For more information, contact Proofpoint.



[1] Varun Haran, “Deception Technology in 2020
[2] Lawrence Pingree, Gartner “Deception-related technology – it’s not just ‘nice to have’, it’s a new strategy of defense
[3] Augusto Barros Gartner Research “New Research: Deception Technologies
[4] John Leyden, The Daily Swig “AI-powered honeypots: Machine learning may help improve intrusion detection

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