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The Value of Honeypots

This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Disadvantages Of Honeypots

With all of these wonderful advantages, you would think honeypots would be the ultimate security solution. Unfortunately, that is not the case. They have several disadvantages. It is because of these disadvantages that honeypots do not replace any security mechanisms; they only work with and enhance your overall security architecture.

Narrow Field Of View

The greatest disadvantage of honeypots is they have a narrow field of view: They only see what activity is directed against them. If an attacker breaks into your network and attacks a variety of systems, your honeypot will be blissfully unaware of the activity unless it is attacked directly. If the attacker has identified your honeypot for what it is, she can now avoid that system and infiltrate your organization, with the honeypot never knowing she got in. As noted earlier, honeypots have a microscope effect on the value of the data you collect, enabling you to focus closely on data of known value. However, like a microscope, the honeypot's very limited field of view can exclude events happening all around it.

Finger Printing

Another disadvantage of honeypots, especially many commercial versions, is fin-gerprinting. Fingerprinting is when an attacker can identify the true identity of a honeypot because it has certain expected characteristics or behaviors. For example, a honeypot may emulate a Web server. Whenever an attacker connects to this specific type of honeypot, the Web server responds by sending a common error message using standard HTML. This is the exact response we would expect for any Web server. However, the honeypot has a mistake in it and misspells one of the HTML commands, such as spelling the word length as legnht. This misspelling now becomes a fingerprint for the honeypot, since any attacker can quickly identify it because of this error in the Web server emulation. An incorrectly implemented honeypot can also identify itself. For example, a honeypot may be designed to emulate an NT IIS Web server, but the honeypot also has certain characteristics that identify it as a Unix Solaris server. These contradictory identities can act as a signature for a honeypot. There are a variety of other methods to fingerprint a honeypot that we discuss later in the book.

If a blackhat identifies an organization using a honeypot on its internal networks, he could spoof the identity of other production systems and attack the honeypot. The honeypot would detect these spoofed attacks, and falsely alert administrators that a production system was attacking it, sending the organization on a wild goose chase. Meanwhile, in the midst of all the confusion, an attacker could focus on real attacks.

Fingerprinting is an even greater risk for research honeypots. A system designed to gain intelligence can be devastated if detected. An attacker can feed bad information to a research honeypot as opposed to avoiding detection. This bad information would then lead the security community to make incorrect conclusions about the blackhat community.

This is not to say all honeypots must avoid detection. Some organizations might want to scare away or confuse attackers. Once a honeypot is attacked, it can identify itself and then warn off the attacker in hopes of scaring him off. However, in most situations organizations do not want honeypots to be detected.


The third disadvantage of honeypots is risk: They can introduce risk to your environment. By risk, we mean that a honeypot, once attacked, can be used to attack, infiltrate, or harm other systems or organizations. As we discuss later, different honeypots have different levels of risk. Some introduce very little risk, while others give the attacker entire platforms from which to launch new attacks. The simpler the honeypot, the less the risk. For example, a honeypot that merely emulates a few services is difficult to compromise and use to attack other systems. In contrast, a honeypot that creates a jail gives an attacker an actual operating system with which to interact. An attacker might be able to break out of such a cage and then use the honeypot to launch passive or active attacks against other systems or organizations. Risk is variable, depending on how one builds and deploys the honeypot.

Because of their disadvantages, honeypots cannot replace other security mechanisms such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems. Rather, they add value by working with existing security mechanisms. They play a part in your overall defenses.

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