Archives ||About Us || Advertise || Feedback || Subscribe-
Issue of December 2003 

 Home > Focus
 Print Friendly Page ||  Email this story

Focus: Honeypots

Caught in the Net

How a honeynet uses low and high interaction honeypots to better monitor attackers. by Dario Forte

Every type of incident has its own management process. Some are "publicly" discussed while others are highly privileged, partly due to the public relations policies of the infected targets. In incident prevention and response, we are beginning to see the first examples of systems that monitor the behavior of malicious hackers within specific real or simulated realms-otherwise known as honeynets.

A honeynet is a modular system composed of honeypots. Each honeypot can simulate one or more environments (operating systems, daemons, or services) and operate on different platforms. The module is there to be compromised, but only to allow the pot owner to monitor the hacker's actions and perform a detailed behavioral analysis. A honeypot will require varying amounts of RAM and CPU capacity, depending on the type of simulation and number of services and active processes. It is cheaper to deploy one on Linux (no graphics required), but Windows-based products are also available.

Why a honeynet?

The real value in this type of solution is that you can limit the number of false positives much more effectively than with a conventional IDS. This is known in the industry as noise reduction, and it means lower consumption of logging resources, which translates into less analysis time since there are fewer events to evaluate.

But this sort of tool is not without risks. As opposed to Distributed Intrusion Detection Systems (DIDS), indicated for distributed capture of suspect packets and patterns across the entire network segment, honeypots are mainly host-based and only pick up activity directed against the machine on which they are installed. Hence, a more articulated and granular deployment is needed to achieve the same results as a DIDS, with which the pots interface in 80% of the cases. Another risk is the use of honeypots by attackers as stepping stones to attack other systems. This could be a problem in certain legislative contexts, such as Italy, and even in the US there appears to be legal complications (see sidebar).

There are, however, many benefits from honeypot systems, ranging from the ability to handle "new generation" IP traffic such as IPv6 (which is not always recognized by IDSs) to the ability to accumulate and aggregate information on ongoing attacks in a much simpler way than an IDS. No special algorithms are required and the flexibility of these tools significantly reduces the problem of false alarms and false positives.

There are different kinds of honeypots. They differ in the level of interaction with the rest of the public network, whether they are free or commercial, and in the type of simulation carried out. Generally, a honeypot can operate at a low or high level of interaction, and it depends on the level of activity granted to attackers once the machine has been compromised. Low interaction honeypots, for example, handle single operating systems and/or single services. This means that once an ftp server is "called up", the only commands allowed to an attacker are those related to that service. It is clear that this type of pot is useful only for basic investigative operations that are low risk. The main disadvantage in this case is that only some of the attacker's activities is logged. If the attacker is skilled, he may be able to figure out the origin of the apparent anomaly and abandon the target. This type of setup would seem to be justified for a broad deployment, or allow users to get a grasp on how such a behavioral analysis tool works. It is thus preferable to flank this type of pot with high interaction services, which are more complex and fundamentally without emulation. This means that the attacker has a complete target at his disposal and there is a greater possibility of monitoring the attacker's actions, including those that are totally new.

The variations

Most honeypots installed on complex architecture and having complex functions are based on high interaction systems. One of these is Symantec's DecoyServer, which fakes e-mail traffic to fool attackers. Its defenses include automatic shutdown of the entire honeynet in the event of a sudden increase in attacker activity-a technique known as "frequency-based policies".

Traffic monitoring is also important. The new generation of high interaction honeypots provides accurate reporting that can be used by both management and technicians. The purpose is to prioritize events to proactively resolve potential issues.

Furthermore, we are beginning to see the first examples of stealth monitoring and containment, as well as real-time attack analysis. The main objective is to have both host-based and network-based intrusion detection without tipping off the attacker about the surveillance. And with the need to centralize management and consolidate reporting functions, a good graphical interface greatly facilitates the use of the product, even by non-experts.

There are also low interaction honeypots, which are useful when its maintainers are not able to guarantee that the process will be excluded from the rest of the network activity during an attack. Put simply, low interaction is recommended for non-experts not wanting to risk being used as a launch pad.

One of the most frequently used low interaction examples is Honeyd. It is an open source daemon for Unix systems, although a version for Windows was recently announced.

The main function of Honeyd is the monitoring of unused IP space. It intercepts calls to IP addresses not related to machines located in a specific subnetwork, and begins to simulate traffic (as if it were a truly functioning target). The tool can also simulate individual services and ports, and this may be useful for observing the behavior of an attacker during and immediately after the illicit access phase. Another interesting aspect is the ability of some honeypots to simulate operating systems as well as single services. For instance, there are emulators for Windows XP, Linux and Cisco IOS. The bottomline determining the quality of a honeypot is the spoofare, a special operating system stack. A well-crafted honeypot can emulate not only the individual services but also fake the operating system, whereas others might raise suspicions during the targeted scanning phase. A practical example is the fake daemon httpd that runs on Windows.

When to use what

Generally, one opts for a honeynet comprising high and low interaction honeypots. This is to guarantee an attacker a certain operating autonomy without being tipped off.

Another important concept is the honeywall. This is a gateway through which all the connections to and from the honeynet are routed. Generally, a high percentage of inbound and a limited amount of outbound traffic are allowed, especially when the outgoing packets have a negative payload, i.e., serving the attacker's purposes. Honeypots can be used in a variety of ways. While their intrinsic value as a research tool into new attack patterns is not yet fully determined, one of the most effective practical examples is protection from automated attacks (e.g. those based on worms) that may use complex scanning techniques. There are also 'sticky' honeypots that slow an attack via a series of TCP-based techniques, such as the use of Windows Zero Size. Sticky honeypots fall into the category called "no interaction honeypots", which extinguish or slow the attack to the point where it is rendered harmless. Since the input is generated by an automated tool, there is no risk that the attacker will know what is happening. Another example of a low interaction honeypot is the Deception Toolkit. It deviates, right from the active fingerprinting phase, an attacker who uses mixed social engineering and information gathering techniques.


Honeynet implementations provide solutions for almost any need. The software is highly modular and allows step-by-step implementation.

The management of the type of composite architecture described in this article requires four full-time staff, and may also have to coordinate with the worldwide honeynet project, which has very rigorous access parameters.

This article first appeared in Network Computing Asia.

- <Back to Top>-  

Copyright 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Limited (Mumbai, India). All rights reserved throughout the world.
This entire site is compiled in Mumbai by the Business Publications Division (BPD) of the Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Limited. Site managed by BPD.