A honeypot is valuable as a surveillance and early-warning tool. While it is often a computer, a honeypot can take on other forms, such as files or data records, or even unused IP address space. A honeypot that masquerades as an open proxy in order to monitor and record the activities of those using the system is called a sugarcane. Honeypots should have no production value and hence should not see any legitimate traffic or activity. Whatever they capture can then be surmised as malicious or unauthorized. One very practical implication of this is that honeypots designed to thwart spam by masquerading as systems of the types abused by spammers to send spam can categorize the material they trap 100% accurately: it is all illicit.
Honeypots can carry risks to a network, and must be handled with care. If they are not properly walled off, an attacker can use them to break into a system.
Victim hosts are an active network counter-intrusion tool. These computers run special software, designed to appear to an intruder as being important and worth looking into. In reality, these programs are dummies, and their patterns are constructed specifically to foster interest in attackers. The software installed on, and run by, victim hosts is dual purpose. First, these dummy programs keep a network intruder occupied looking for valuable information where none exists, effectively convincing him or her to isolate themselves in what is truly an unimportant part of the network. This decoy strategy is designed to keep an intruder from getting bored and heading into truly security-critical systems. The second part of the victim host strategy is intelligence gathering. Once an intruder has broken into the victim host, the machine or a network administrator can examine the intrusion methods used by the intruder. This intelligence can be used to build specific countermeasures to intrusion techniques, making truly important systems on the network less vulnerable to intrusion.
Production honeypots are easy to use, capture only limited information, and are used primarily by companies or corporations; Production honeypots are placed inside the production network with other production servers by organization to improve their overall state of security. Normally, production honeypots are low-interaction honeypots which are easier to deploy. They give less information about the attacks or attackers than research honeypots do. The purpose of a production honeypot is to help mitigate risk in an organization. The honeypot adds value to the security measures of an organization.
Research honeypots are run by a volunteer, non-profit research organization or an educational institution to gather information about the motives and tactics of the Blackhat community targeting different networks. These honeypots do not add direct value to a specific organization. Instead they are used to research the threats organizations face, and to learn how to better protect against those threats. This information is then used to protect against those threats. Research honeypots are complex to deploy and maintain, capture extensive information, and are used primarily by research, military, or government organizations.
Some variations of honeypots include the following:
honeytrap, also released under the GPL, dynamically creates port listeners based on TCP connection attempts extracted from a network interface stream. This approach allows handling of some unknown attacks. Similar to nepenthes, malware downloads are performed by the software automatically. Incoming attacks can be mirrored back to the initiator.
Distributed honeypot systems aim to counter the above inefficiencies. The most common approach is deploying a cluster of high-interaction honeypots in a central location and dispersing lightweight traffic redirectors to sites across the Internet. With this technique, originally proposed by the Collapsar project, the deployment costs are kept low, while blacklisting is made more difficult and the correlation of gathered data easier. The same technique is also employed by the Honey@Home tool which was developed in the context of the NoAH project Honey@Home aims to capitalize on the rapid increase of residential broadband subscribers and create a community-based network of distributed honeypot sensors.
Spammers are known to abuse vulnerable resources such as open mail relays and open proxies. Some system administrators have created honeypot programs which masquerade as these abusable resources in order to discover the activities of spammers. There are several capabilities such honeypots provide to these administrators and the existence of such fake abusable systems makes abuse more difficult or risky. Honeypots can be a powerful countermeasure to the abuse from those who rely on very high volume abuse (e.g. spammers).
The capabilities of value to the honeypot operator include determination of the apparent source (that is, IP address) of the abuse and bulk capture of spam (which makes possible determination of URLs and response mechanisms used by the spammers.) For open relay honeypots it is possible to determine the e-mail addresses ("dropboxes") spammers use as targets for their test messages, which are the tool they use to detect open relays. It is then simple to deceive the spammer: transmit any illicit relay e-mail received addressed to that dropbox e-mail address. That would indicate to the spammer that the honeypot was a real abusable open relay and he would often respond by sending large quantities of relay spam to that honeypot, where it is stopped. This was a capability of greatest value to the (unknown and unpredictable) intended recipients of the spam. The apparent source may be another abused system: spammers and other abusers may use a chain of abused systems in order to make detection of the original starting point of the abuse traffic difficult. This in itself is indicative of the power of honeypots as anti-spam tools: in the early days of anti-spam honeypot usage spammers showed little concern for hiding their location and would test for vulnerabilities and send spam directly from their own systems. It was easy, it was safe. Honeypots made the abuse less easy, less safe.
Open relays are still used by spammers but the volume of spam sent through such open relays appears to be much smaller than it was in 2001 to 2002. While most spam originates from within US, spammers do hop through open relays across political boundaries to mask their origin. Honeypot operators may use intercepted relay tests to recognize and thwart attempts to relay spam through their honeypots. "Thwart" may mean "accept the relay spam but decline to deliver it." Honeypot operators may discover other details concerning the spam and the spammer by examining the captured spam messages. (However, open relay spam has declined significantly.)
An amalgam of these techniques is Project Honey Pot. The distributed, open-source Project uses honeypot pages installed on websites around the world. These honeypot pages hand out uniquely tagged spamtrap e-mail addresses. E-mail address harvesting and Spammers can then be tracked as they gather and subsequently send to these spamtrap e-mail addresses.
Just as honeypots are a weapon against spammers, honeypot detection systems are a spammer-employed counter-weapon. As detection systems would likely use unique characteristics of specific honeypots to identify them; a plethora of honeypots in use makes the set of unique characteristics larger and more daunting to those seeking to detect and thereby identify them. This is an unusual circumstance in software: a situation in which "versionitis" (a large number of versions of the same software, all differing slightly from each other) can be beneficial. There's also an advantage in having some easy-to-detect honeypots deployed. Fred Cohen, the inventor of the Deception Toolkit, even argues that every system running his honeypot should have a deception port that adversaries can use to detect the honeypot. Cohen believes that this might deter adversaries.