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Honeypots and Ransomware

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We’ve all heard the adage “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” The phrase dates back to 1666, where it appeared as an Italian proverb. However, the principle remains true today and even relates to cybersecurity. I’m talking about the ‘Honeypot,’ which is a tool utilized to lure hackers and cybercriminals to catch them red-handed.

Law enforcement officers use honeypots when working online to target drug dealers, sexual predators, or other types of dark web operations. Malware companies use them to discover the latest malware variants and threats. At a much more docile level, honeypots are being implemented by enterprises to help deter hackers, threat actors, and malware attacks.

Honeypots as Part of a Cybersecurity Strategy

We’ve come to realize that we can no longer rely on a single cybersecurity tool to combat today’s threats. Organizations must enact a multi-layer cybersecurity strategy that incorporates a defense-in-depth approach.

For larger organizations that must secure a large scale of resources, a honeypot can prove a valuable tool to help combat against a cyberattack. In some ways, the essence of the honeypot goes against the very notion of cybersecurity, as it isn’t a tool of deterrence. Instead, it serves as a decoy used to entice an attacker to act upon it.

A honeypot can represent multiple types of exploitable targets such as a web application, database server, domain controller, file server, or USB drive. They can include internet-facing assets as well as internal ones.

So why would you ever want to open the door to attack? Well, if someone is responding to your honeypot, they’re already inside your network. The rationale behind the honeypot is to entice someone to implement an attack. It has three primary goals:

  • Once an unauthorized action takes place against a honeypot, an alert is sent to the internal cybersecurity team, giving them visibility into active threats
  • The honeypot collects information about the attacks on it that can be used to help defend against it, and possibly identify the attackers
  • The decoys help waste the attackers’ time, giving the IT team additional time to secure their real digital resources

The Canary in the Coal Mine

While rudimentary attacks attempt to encrypt as many data repositories as quickly as possible, the more effective ransomware attacks are highly involved and comprised of multiple stages. Because ransomware attacks are often implemented from an established beachhead within your network, perimeter firewalls can do little to combat them, so detection of suspicious activity is critical.

Honeypots serve as an early-warning detection system to provide ample time to take the necessary steps to lock down a network and prepare for the worst. A decoy server that appears to host high-value data or contain easily exploitable vulnerabilities may be targeted before your actual production servers.

Successful ransomware gangs don’t launch an attack right away. They usually perform some level of reconnaissance to probe and investigate your defenses and seek out data repositories. Once the targeted data has been identified, it’s common practice to exfiltrate it first to create a second method of extortion.

While an encrypted data volume gives a clear indication of an attack, the early stages of an attack leave few identifiable breadcrumbs, so a network of honeypots may be the only method to attain the initial indicator of an attack. They also provide the means of obtaining your own reconnaissance information about those who are scouting you out at the same time.

A Poisoned Apple

In the same way that the evil queen used an apple to lure Snow White, a cybersecurity team can use honeypot decoys to tempt threat actors into some type of action. Because ransomware gangs are so effective at what they do, you may need more than the standard arsenal of cybersecurity weaponry to combat them. A honeypot strategy can greatly augment your existing strategy, helping minimize the costly process of ransomware remediation.

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