Intrusion Detection Honeypots Simplify Network Security

Intrusion detection is a complex business. Whether you deploy an intrusion detection system (IDS), or you collect and analyze the computer and device logs on your network, identifying malicious traffic in a sea of legitimate activity can be both difficult and time consuming.

A honeypot makes identifying malicious traffic dead simple. That's because any traffic to a honeypot, after some initial quick tuning to rule out false positives, is suspicious. A honeypot is a fake computer asset that exists only to alert its owner if it is touched. Nobody should be touching it or attempting to log on. Because all activity is illegitimate, no analysis is needed to tell good traffic from bad. The only question is, how dangerous is the intruder?

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As a longtime security professional (and author of the book "Honeypots for Windows"), I've maintained eight different honeypots on the Internet to track hacker and malware behavior. I was able to watch as Internet malware evolved from script-kiddie viruses to professional crimeware. I was able to see and learn about bank account stealing Trojans long before they were well known in the security world, and I've seen carders (credit-card-dealing thieves) operate firsthand.

More important, I've seen the impact of honeypots in the corporate environment, where they shine as basic early-warning systems. I've seen honeypots on a corporate LAN catch foreign industrial spies, snare trusted insiders gone bad, and alert security teams to the presence of a roving malware program that had gone unseen. In nearly 10 years of deploying honeypots, I've yet to create one that didn't find something malicious within a few days of being installed.

In short, when used as early-warning systems, honeypots are low cost, low noise, and low maintenance, yet highly effective at drawing attention to threats in the network environment. They belong in any defense-in-depth program.

With this recommendation in mind, I reviewed three available honeypot software solutions: Keyfocus' KFSensor, MicroSolved's HoneyPoint Security Server, and free open source Honeyd. I tested all three honeypots in a closed lab environment, running them inside of virtual machines hosted by Windows Server 2008 R2's Hyper-V. KFSensor and HoneyPoint were run on Windows 7 Enterprise, and Honeyd was run on Ubuntu 9.1. Attack probes were simulated using Nessus 4.2.2, BackTrack 4 tools, and manual connections from remote physical machines on the same private LAN. All host-based firewalls were disabled, and User Account Control (UAC) was disabled on the Windows computers, because of the likelihood they would thwart various attacks and probes that might otherwise succeed.

Why use specialized honeypot software?

You don't need a KFSensor, Honeyd, or HoneyPoint Security Server to set up a honeypot. I often recommend to readers that they take an old computer they're getting ready to throw away and use it as an early-warning honeypot instead. You've already paid for the hardware and software, so why not put it to good use? (See my tips in the sidebar, "Intrusion detection on the cheap: Roll your own honeypot.")

Specialized honeypot software has a number of advantages over that old PC. For one, honeypot software usually does the hard work for you. They set up the services, provide a range of fake functionality, and simplify logging and alerting. Most honeypot software programs come with low- and medium-interaction services and allow easy customization.

Secondly, honeypot software usually excels at data capture, sometimes offering intrusion detection signatures, packet capture and network protocol analysis, and easy filtering and fine-tuning. For example, some GUI-based honeypots allow you to click an event message to create "ignore rules" to filter out legitimate traffic. Compared to configuring an old PC for honeypot duty, a specialized honeypot program squeezes what might be a two-day process into 10 or 15 minutes of actual work.

High-interaction honeypots vs. low-interaction honeypots

When people think of honeypots, they often think of complex, highly realistic "traps" where the hacker encounters a range of fully functional services (a realistic website, an email server with updated emails, and so on) and his every move can be tracked. These types of high-interaction honeypots provide realistic emulation of high-value network assets in return for significant administrator effort. Their sophistication is intended to better determine the hacker's motivations and to better document what the hacker did.

For example, once when I was onsite at a large defense contractor, a newly installed honeypot caught someone probing the SharePoint Web server. We quickly set up three areas of the site designed to help us profile our intruder: a section with computer games, a section hosting "secret" NASA Space Shuttle plans, and a section that purported to have F17 fighter pilot communication codes. The secret Space Shuttle plans were simply page redirects from NASA's public website. The hacker quickly went to the Space Shuttle plans and began using SharePoint's search feature to look for Middle East topics. This was no gamer. The hacker was later found to be a foreign spy working in the company's accounting department as a temp worker.

Because high-interaction honeypots require a lot of work and carry increased risk that an attacker will use the exploited honeypot to do harm (for example, attacking other companies, installing a password sniffer, and more), I encourage most companies to use low- or medium-interaction honeypots. A medium-interaction honeypot fakes common tasks, but doesn't implement a full service. For example, a fake FTP service might allow the prober to attempt to logon, or it might allow them to logon anonymously and offer up fake files to download. A fake email server might even let the attacker read and send emails. KFSensor allows a few emails to be sent on the fake service so that a potential spammer might be tricked into thinking he's found a real email server. The idea is to provide enough functionality to determine whether an intruder poses a threat, but not enough to allow the intruder to take things too far.

Low-interaction honeypots are the simplest of all. Honeypots that serve as early-warning systems are usually low interaction, meaning that they monitor one or more network ports and alert when something has tried to connect to a particular port. Low-interaction honeypots don't attempt to look like fully formed, legitimate services. Attackers rarely understand why the remote port isn't responding correctly, and they move on after a few attempts. That's OK, because you've hopefully logged the origination point of the probes and are now exploring it yourself.

While low-interaction honeypots don't do a whole lot to convince an intruder that they're the real thing, they don't have to. Their only job is to alert the computer security or incident response team when something touches them.

Honeypot software features

All honeypots have a few core functions in common. First, they must publish one or more ports and services that will attract intruders. Next, they must capture at least the intruder's origination address (usually IP address), date, time, and data sent in the connection attempt. All connection attempts should be logged (unless instructed to be ignored) and generate alerts so that an incident response team can get involved. Lastly, a great honeypot helps in data analysis, whether it's through detailed packet analysis, password attempt analysis, or aggregating related probes into a single incident. How well each honeypot does this and with what finesse is where the evaluation takes place.

Platforms and installation. Honeypot software should be easy to install and configure. KFSensor leads the pack in this regard with the best GUIs across the board, although it runs only on Windows (XP and later). HoneyPoint and Honeyd run on Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X, and Honeyd supports BSD and Solaris as well. HoneyPoint is fairly simple to install, but requires minor text file manipulation for licensing. Honeyd is the most versatile honeypot of the three; unfortunately, it's also the most difficult to install and configure. Longtime Linux command-line users will find familiarity, but Windows users will usually be daunted by the downloading, compiling, and configuration work, all at the command line. All three honeypots could run as a user-mode program or as a system service or daemon. Running as a system service makes it easier for them to resume operations after a reboot.

Emulation levels and services. Most honeypot programs are low interaction to medium interaction -- or it's more accurate to say that some services are emulated at a low level and others at medium. All three honeypots reviewed fall into the low to medium range of emulation. KFSensor and Honeyd allow routing of probes to external real systems if high interaction is desired for particular services. The forwarded attacker still thinks he is connected to the same target system and IP address, and the honeypot continues to capture data so that the administrator can get a complete picture of what the attacker is doing.

Next page: Find the sweetest honeypot

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