The strategy behind Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ has been used by the military, sports teams, and pretty much anyone looking for a strategic edge against their foes. As Sun Tzu says “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” Sun Tzu understood that to gain an advantage on your opponent you need to catch him off guard, make him believe you’re something you’re not, so that you can leverage this opportunity to your advantage.
As security practitioners we should all supplement our security practices with this timed and tested decoy technique against cyber attackers.
There are a few technologies that can be used as decoys, and two of the most common are honeypots and false decoy accounts:
But before actually setting up either of these two techniques you first need to think about how to design the decoy in a way that will be believable. These decoy systems shouldn’t be overtly obvious, yet they need to entice the hacker so that he can’t pass up the opportunity. So think like an attacker: What would an attacker do first when gaining access to a network? How would he exploit a system? Will they install malware? Will they perform a recon scan looking for pivot points? Figuring out what your opponent will do once they’ve gained access to your network is the key to building attractive decoy systems and effective preventive measures.
You also need to figure out the right place for your decoys. You want to install decoys into your network around areas of high value, as well as systems that are not properly monitored with other security technologies. They should be hiding in plain sight and mimicking the systems or accounts that they’re living next to. This means running similar services, have hostnames that fall in line with your syntax, running on the same operating systems (one exception is decoys running a few exploitable services to entice the attacker). The goes the same for accounts that you’ve seeded in applications or authentication services.
And last but not least, you need to find a way to discretely publicize your applications or accounts in order to attract the attacker. Then, when an attacker tries to log in to the decoy applications or accounts (which should be disabled) you should immediately and automatically start tracking and investigating the attack path.
Another important point to make is that once a breach attempt has been made you shouldn’t immediately cut off the account. You might want to watch the hacker for a period of time to see what else that he might access on the network. Many times tracking their actions over a period of time will give you a lot more actionable information that will ultimately help you create a far more secure perimeter. Think of it as a plainclothes police officer following a known criminal. Many times the police will follow a criminal to see if he will lead them toward more information about their activities before making an arrest. Use the same techniques. If an attacker trips over a few of carefully laid traps, it’s possible that he’s just starting to poke around your network. It’s up to you, while you have the upper hand, to determine if you start remediation or continue to guide them under your watchful eye.
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