The Beginner’s Guide to Honeytokens (AKA Canary Tokens)

Get a high-level overview of honeytokens in cybersecurity, with examples.

The Beginner’s Guide to Honeytokens (AKA Canary Tokens)

Imagine being able to bait cyber attackers into revealing their presence before they compromise your systems. That’s exactly what honeytokens are for: deceptive digital traps designed to lure intruders and expose their actions. In this guide, we'll explore the different types of honeytokens, tips for effective deployment, and discuss real-life scenarios and legal considerations. Let’s go!

(Note that honeytokens might also be written as two words - honey tokens - or referred to as ‘canary tokens’. For the purpose of not confusing our readers, we’re going with honeytokens in this article, but you might see other variations in the wild.)

Honeytokens Explained: What They Are, What They’re Good For

Honeytokens are digital entities created to deceive and detect cyber attackers who try to compromise your network or system. They act as bait, drawing in adversaries and triggering an alert when accessed, allowing security teams to respond swiftly to potential threats. Using honeytokens provides an additional layer of defense and helps identify weak points in network, cloud, or applications infrastructure. They can be another layer in a ‘defense in depth’ strategy.

Advantages of Honeytokens in Network Security

  • Early threat detection: By deploying honeytokens throughout your systems, you can detect unauthorized access attempts or data breaches at fairly early stages. Early detection is always better as it allows your security team to react promptly and mitigate the impact of an attack.
  • Low cost enhancement to existing security layers: Honeytokens complement existing technologies such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and antivirus software. They are typically easy to implement  and do not require expensive software licenses (canarytokens is a popular free choice)
  • Minimal impact on system performance: Deploying honeytokens does not significantly affect your network's performance, making them an efficient security measure. Since they only trigger alerts when accessed by unauthorized users, honeytokens remain dormant and non-intrusive during normal operations.
  • Adaptability: Honeytokens can be tailored to the unique requirements of your network and systems, making them highly versatile. You can choose from various types of honeytokens (we cover this below) and deploy them strategically to enhance the security of specific assets or weak points in your infrastructure.
  • Threat intelligence gathering: When attackers interact with honeytokens, security professionals can allow the incident to occur in order to to gather valuable threat intelligence without jeopardizing actual sensitive data or systems. This information helps identify attack patterns, techniques, and potential vulnerabilities, ultimately improving your organization's overall security strategy.

Types of Honeytokens

Honeytokens come in various flavors to address the diverse attack vectors and potential vulnerabilities which attackers can exploit. They can take the form of data, files, or even web elements. Let's break down the main types:

Data-based honeytokens: Fake user credentials or access keys lure attackers into revealing their presence. A database containing these decoys helps you catch intruders red-handed.

Database honeytokens: Inserting fake tables or records into existing databases provides another level of deception. When attackers query these decoys, it triggers an alert, signaling unauthorized access.

File-based honeytokens: Seemingly valuable files (e.g., confidential documents or sensitive data) act as bait. When accessed or modified, they raise the alarm.

Token-based honeytokens: Unique tracking tokens in web applications, email links, or API keys serve as digital breadcrumbs. They lead attackers to believe they've accessed something significant while alerting security teams to intrusion attempts.

Web-based honeytokens: Hidden URLs, invisible links, or web pages only accessible via specific tools can entice would-be attackers. Accessing these web elements unveils their true intentions.

Understanding these different types of honeytokens is just the beginning. The real challenge lies in implementing them effectively while keeping them inconspicuous to attackers. Miracolously, that’s exactly what we’re going to cover in the next section.

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Implementing Honeytokens in Your Network Security Strategy

Deploying honeytokens is both an art and a science. Here are some crucial pointers to help you use honeytokens effectively in your network security plan:

Choose the right honeytoken: Assess your network's weak points, valuable assets, and the attacker's likely entry points. Use this information to decide which type(s) of honeytokens will serve you best.

Keep it stealthy: Don't make honeytokens glaringly obvious (e.g., maybe don’t use “”). Strike a balance between making them look valuable enough to target while not standing out like a sore thumb.

Place honeytokens strategically: Scatter them across your network, particularly in areas where sensitive data is stored or where unauthorized access might go unnoticed.

Monitor, monitor, monitor: Set up an alert system that triggers as soon as a honeytoken is accessed. Quick responses can make all the difference when dealing with intruders.

Embrace automation: Automate the deployment and monitoring of honeytokens using tools or custom scripts. This ensures a consistently high level of security and reduces the workload on your security team.

Let’s see how this would come into play in a real-life scenario:

Hypothetical Scenario: Protecting an E-Commerce Website with Honeytokens

Let's say we're trying to protect an e-commerce website called ShopSecure. ShopSecure faces various threats, such as unauthorized access to customer data, payment information, and confidential business documents. One effective way to detect such intrusions is by deploying honeytokens. In this hypothetical scenario, we'll focus on protecting ShopSecure's customer database using a database honeytoken.

Identifying the threat: ShopSecure's customer database contains sensitive data, making it an attractive target for attackers. A potential attacker could attempt SQL injection or exploit a vulnerability in the web application to gain access to this information. Unauthorized access to customer data could lead to data breaches and reputational damage.

Deploying the honeytoken: To detect such unauthorized access, ShopSecure's security team decides to deploy a database honeytoken in the form of a fake customer record. They insert this record into the customer database with a unique identifier, such as a fake email address or an unusually high account balance. This record is intentionally crafted to look valuable and tempting to attackers but has no real value for the business.

Monitoring and alerts. The security team sets up monitoring and alerting mechanisms specifically for the honeytoken. Whenever the fake customer record is accessed, an alert is immediately triggered and sent to the team. This real-time alerting system allows the team to detect unauthorized access and respond promptly.

Technical considerations: To maximize the effectiveness of the honeytoken, the security team should consider the following:

  • Ensure that the honeytoken is indistinguishable from genuine records to avoid tipping off attackers.
  • Continuously monitor for new vulnerabilities and attack vectors that could be used to access the customer database.
  • Regularly review and update the honeytoken to maintain its effectiveness and adapt to new threats.

Responding to honeytoken access: When the security team at ShopSecure receives an alert indicating an attempt to access the honeytoken, they take the following steps to respond and mitigate the potential threat:

  1. Verify the alert: The security team first verifies the alert to ensure it is not a false positive. They examine the logs and other available information to confirm unauthorized access to the honeytoken.
  2. Identify the source: The team investigates the source of the unauthorized access attempt, trying to determine the attacker's IP address, potential entry points, and any related tools, tactics, or techniques used.
  3. Contain the incident: Once the unauthorized access is confirmed, the security team works to contain the incident. This may include temporarily blocking the attacker's IP address, shutting down compromised systems, or disabling potentially vulnerable services to prevent further damage.
  4. Investigate the breach: The team conducts a thorough investigation to identify any other compromised systems, affected data, and potential weaknesses in the network that the attacker might have exploited.
  5. Remediate vulnerabilities: Based on the investigation findings, the security team implements measures to remediate the identified vulnerabilities, such as applying patches, updating security configurations, or strengthening access controls.
  6. Strengthen monitoring: The team enhances monitoring capabilities to detect any further attempts to access honeytokens or other suspicious activities. This includes refining alerting mechanisms, ensuring they remain effective and actionable.
  7. Review and learn: Once the incident is resolved, the security team reviews the entire event to identify lessons learned and improve their overall security strategy. This may involve adjusting honeytoken deployment, updating security policies, or implementing new security measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Keeping Honeytokens Up to Date

As cyber attackers continually evolve their tactics and tools, it's essential to keep your honeytokens up to date and adapt them to new threats. Here are some tips for doing this:

  1. Periodic review: Regularly review your honeytoken strategy and update it to match your organization's security landscape. Assess the effectiveness of current honeytokens and identify areas where they can be improved or new types of honeytokens can be introduced.
  2. Stay informed: Keep up to date with the latest cybersecurity trends, threats, and attacker techniques. Adjust your honeytoken strategy accordingly to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate new attack vectors.
  3. Test your honeytokens: Periodically test your honeytokens to ensure they're still functioning as intended and generating accurate alerts. Make necessary adjustments to fix any issues or inconsistencies detected during testing.
  4. Learn from incidents: When your honeytokens are triggered, analyze the incident to gain insights into attacker behavior and patterns. Use this information to improve your honeytoken strategy and enhance your defenses against future attacks

Considerations for Cloud-based Environments

As cloud-based environments become more prevalent, security engineers need to adapt their strategies to protect these complex systems. Here’s what you want to look out for, regardless of which public cloud provider you’re using:

  1. Design cloud-specific honeytokens: Develop honeytokens tailored to the cloud, such as fake API keys, cloud service access credentials, or S3 bucket names. This ensures that attackers targeting cloud resources are more likely to be drawn to your honeytokens.
  2. Leverage cloud services: Use cloud-native services, such as AWS Lambda or Azure Functions, to automate the deployment, monitoring, and management of your honeytokens. This approach ensures scalability and allows you to take advantage of the cloud provider's built-in security features.
  3. Integrate with cloud monitoring tools: Configure your cloud provider's monitoring tools, such as AWS CloudWatch or Azure Monitor, to detect access to honeytokens and send real-time alerts. These tools enable you to track and analyze honeytoken interactions within your cloud environment effectively.
  4. Ensure consistency with genuine resources: Make your honeytokens blend in with your cloud resources by mimicking naming conventions, tagging, and access controls. This camouflage will make it more difficult for attackers to distinguish honeytokens from genuine cloud assets.

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