What is a honeypot?
A honeypot is a cyber trap or decoy designed to look like a legitimate part of a system, network, or other digital environment. Honeypots are used to lure cybercriminals away from real digital assets, and they can be modeled after software, server infrastructure, or even an entire network to look convincing to cybercriminals.
While honeypots are tools used by cybersecurity teams to lure hackers and other criminals into environments that security teams can control and monitor, the basic meaning of a honeypot is much broader. A honeypot is anything or any location that attracts a certain type of person.
How honeypots work
Honeypots work like bait to lure hackers or criminals, just as honey can be put out to attract bears. In the field of cybersecurity, honeypots are fake digital assets or environments designed to attract cybercriminals. These assets could include software applications and data that act like a legitimate computer system, contain sensitive data, and aren’t secure.
Honeypots usually contain a security vulnerability that isn’t too obvious, but obvious enough that many cybercriminals wouldn’t want to pass up the chance to get into the system. This lures or distracts them away from the real system, which is better protected.
For example, honeypots can be used as part of a bank’s IT security. You might set up a honeypot system that, to outsiders or hackers, looks like the bank’s network. This helps protect the bank’s real network by diverting malicious traffic.
Once the hacker accesses the honeypot, security teams can track their movements, allowing analysts to detect and defend against cybercrime by gaining an understanding of how hackers operate and what they want. Honeypots can also be used to determine which security measures are working and which need improvement.
Honeypots can be useful in detecting and preventing outside attempts to break into internal networks. A honeypot could be placed outside an external firewall to attract, deflect, and analyze traffic.
What are honeypots used for?
Honeypots help cybersecurity teams protect valuable digital assets and figure out the best strategies for keeping hackers at bay. More specifically, honeypots are used for cybersecurity research and production.
- Research honeypots: Research honeypots allow administrators to study the activity of hackers to learn how to protect against digital threats. Honeypots can also help expose system vulnerabilities that might not otherwise be detected. For example, honeypots can be set up to receive only fake traffic. Then, if any real activity is detected, security teams know that cybercriminals may be active.
- Production honeypots: Production honeypots are usually placed inside networks to act as a decoy and lessen the risk of real assets being infiltrated. These honeypots serve to distract hackers from legitimate targets inside a network.
Hackers, for their part, may use something similar to a honeypot, known as a watering hole attack, which lures unsuspecting users into giving away their personal data or downloading malware. But “honeypot” in cybersecurity is more often used to describe defensive tactics by security teams rather than offensive ones used by hackers.
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Types of honeypots
Just as there are different types of cyberthreats and different types of hackers, there are different types of honeypots to gather intelligence on those threats.
Here are five common types of honeypots:
- Email honeypots (also known as spam traps) are fake email addresses created to attract and receive spam emails. They help block spammers from sending malicious emails to legitimate email addresses, and they’re used to study spamming activity.
- Database honeypots contain vulnerable and fictitious datasets to attract attackers who get through firewalls. These honeypots are used to monitor the type and number of attacks that occur in databases.
- Malware honeypots copy software apps and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to attract malware attacks. These can be used to find out what API weaknesses need to be addressed and help create anti-malware software.
- Spider honeypots are malicious bots and ad-network crawlers that prowl the web, looking to trap automated crawlers with accessible web pages and links.
- HoneyBots are the newest type of honeypot, developed by university researchers. Unlike other honeypots, a HoneyBot can interact with hackers, mimicking legitimate systems to look more convincing.
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