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What is a Honey Token, and why do Cybercriminals Love Them?

Posted by Trevagh Stankard on Tue, Aug 1st, 2023

The famous idiom "Set a trap to catch a thief" describes the idea that you can trap criminals using a lure; this concept persists because it often works. In the world of cyber, honey tokens act as a trap to catch a cybercriminal. But what exactly is a honey token, why is it needed, and how does it prevent cyber-attacks?

What is a Honey Token, and why is it Needed?

"Data is the new oil" was coined in 2006 by Clive Humby to describe how valuable data is in a digital world. Since 2006, this valuable commodity has been at the center of cybercrime. A 2023 report by identity vendor ForgeRock has found that while the numbers of breached data records have decreased somewhat between 2022 and 2023, the type of breached record has changed; for example, theft of protected health information (PHI) rose by 160%, and notably, breached records containing login credentials, like a password, increased by 350%. These data evidence the targeting of certain types of valuable data by cybercriminals rather than a generalized attack of any data. 

The time taken to respond to a breach is critical; breaches that involve stolen or compromised credentials take around 327 days to identify. During that time, cybercriminals may continuously exfiltrate data and infect your network with malware. Honey tokens provide an opportunity to set an early warning system to trigger alerts of an incoming cyber-attack.

Honey tokens are a type of highly targeted honeypot. However, unlike honeypots, which can be elaborate and mimic systems such as servers, honey tokens are typically small data pieces used to signal an unauthorized access attempt. So, if cybercriminals focus on credentials, which the research suggests, a carefully placed honey token will lure the cybercriminal into a trap. If a cybercriminal falls for the honey token and attempts to use it, a trigger is pulled, and an alert is sent. 

The steps below show how a typical honey token works:

  1.  A honey token is created that lures cybercriminals in, for example, a fake administrator's login credential.
  2. The honey token is placed in a strategic area attractive to cybercriminals, for example, (fake) credentials set in configuration files used to access highly sensitive resources.
  3. The honey pot is linked to an intrusion detection system (IDS) or security information and event management (SIEM) platform. An alert is generated via the IDS and SIEM when the honey token is accessed or used.
  4. Once an alert is triggered, the incident response plan of an organization goes into action. Typical responses include analyzing the IP address of the access and tracking any access attempts. 
  5. The data gathered by the response team can then be used to ensure that security measures are robust. The information gained from using honey tokens offers insights into the parts of a network most at risk and the type of tools needed to harden those areas against attack.

 Honey tokens are strategic, so the type of honey token and its placement should be adapted to any changes in the cybersecurity threat landscape.

Types of Honey Token

Honey tokens are data-based and come in several forms; some examples give you a flavor of how these fraudster traps work:

Fake credentials: a data honey token lures cybercriminals with the promise of access to a privileged account.

Fake files: honey token files are fake files that look like they contain sensitive or valuable data. These files are bait, and when opened, they trigger an alert.

Token traps: tokens in web applications, email links, or API keys that provide tracking data to alert security teams if an intrusion attempt is made.

Booby-trapped web elements come in the form of hidden URLs, invisible links, or web pages only accessible via specific tools like phishing turned against a fraudster. If a hacker accesses one of these web elements, an alert is sent, and the security team can respond.

Honey tokens are small and easy to use to deploy across an enterprise in any vulnerable area.

It should also be noted that honey tokens could also identify unauthorized access by an internal employee. This attempt could be innocent but also indicate a malicious insider threat.

Benefits of Honey Tokens

Honey tokens are relatively low-cost and more straightforward to configure than honeypots. An enterprise can use as many honey tokens as they feel necessary. Each one will act like a tripwire and alert the security team once tripped. 

Because honey pots are simple to use, they provide an easy way to add to existing security layers, such as email gateways and security awareness training programs

Some of the main benefits of honey tokens are:

Early warning system: Honey tokens provide an early warning of incoming cyber-attacks. Honey tokens alert your security team to attempted unauthorized access and give them intelligence and time to respond.

Non-intrusive: Honey tokens only activate once they trigger an alert. Otherwise, they sit in a system without impacting performance or requiring maintenance.

Gather threat intelligence: Patterns of attack and potential system vulnerabilities can be identified if a hacker attempts to activate a honey token. This provides intelligence on techniques and tactics, allowing an organization to create more effective security strategies.  

Defense-in-depth Augmented with Honey Tokens.

Having a comprehensive multi-layered approach to security is crucial, as sophisticated cyber-attacks that target sensitive and valuable data continue to challenge security teams. Honey tokens are simple but effective and add to the defense-in-depth layered security approach. Using honey tokens should be symbiotic with security solutions that prevent email and web-borne threats. 

TitanSecure is a multi-layered security solution featuring SpamTitan Plus, WebTitan, and ArcTitan. It allows you to implement a multi-layered defense system to minimize potential weaknesses and enhance your cybersecurity infrastructure's overall strength, ensuring all fronts are fortified. Cybercriminals may trip your honey token, but TitanSecure will prevent them from causing damage or stealing data.

Using TitanSecure, you will protect your end users from phishing, malware, and cyber-attacks using advanced AI-driven threat intelligence. TitanSecure is a solution with integrated email security, network and DNS protection, data loss prevention, and email and team archiving. This all-in-one advanced security platform defends your organization against the most sophisticated attacks.

To experience the power of a defense in depth, sign up for a free demo of TitanHQ's multi-layered security solution TitanSecure.

Protect your business from phishing threats with SpamTitan email security. Learn how it works today.

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