Honeypots, Part 1

* First in a series on honeypots - definition

Norwich University undergraduate student Bob Pelletier is doing some interesting research work on honeypots in the independent study program with me this term in which he is building a working honeypot system using virtual machines. He has very kindly allowed me to publish his work here as part of the ongoing series. As usual, I’ve made some minor edits for the new context, but all of the following is Bob’s own writing.

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Malicious hackers (blackhats) continuously try to breach security measures to gain access to protected information. To help better understand the methods used by the blackhat community, a new tool has been developed: the honeypot.

The use of honeypots has caused a heated debate within the security field. Many question the legality and ethics of such a system. This series of articles outlines the basic legal issues surrounding honeypots as well as some ethical issues to ponder.

A honeypot is any system designed for the sole purpose of being exploited. This is a broad definition that can be implemented in many ways. Some honeypot systems use software, some use actual production machines, and some even use virtual machines such as with VMware. Whichever honeypot design method is chosen, the underlying goal is to create a system that appears to be vulnerable.

What makes a honeypot different from other vulnerable computer systems is its extensive logging capability. The systems most often include at least four layers of logging to capture attacker activity. Every file accessed, every connection made, every keystroke an attacker makes on a honeypot is logged to a secure location.

The advantage of logging attacker activity is the chance to get an inside view of the blackhat community’s methodology. Learning common methods and attack tools of attackers can aid security experts in designing new protection measures. Studying attack trends can also help predict future attacks. The Honeynet Project founded by Lance Spitzner demonstrates the usefulness of honeypots as a research tool.

Honeypots are not only used for research purposes, but also for production. Implementing a honeypot within a company can create a type of intrusion detection system. The design of a honeypot suggests that any connection attempts made with the system are unauthorized. This is because normal business functions do not use the honeypot; only an attacker would be attempting to use the system. Therefore, activity on a honeypot can alert an organization that an attacker is present. From there a company can close the security hole used by the attacker, investigate the incident, and possibly press charges.

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In the next articles in this series, Bob Pelletier ( mailto:pelletib@norwich.edu ) looks at some of the legal issues surrounding the use of honeypots.

Learn more about this topic

Honeypots.net: Intrusion detection, honeypots & incident response (resources)

Honeypots: Definitions and Value of Honeypots

Lance Spitzner’s book

Symantec releases security tools

Network World, 05/12/03

Check Point digs deep into packets

Network World, 05/12/03

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