Though some legal issues still surround “honey pots,” their use within the security industry is fairly common and is considered a critical weapon in fighting malicious hackers and viruses.
“Theyre an incredibly valuable tool,” said Rich Mogull, research director at analyst firm Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. “You cant really know whats happening without monitoring whats going on in the world. Honey pots and honey nets do a good job of this.”
Setting up an unprotected server or network invites attackers to infect or examine the system. The honey pots are then used to track the hackers and collect data on the way the intruders operate. Information collected in honey pots is typically used to power early warning and prediction systems.
“Its not something every organization needs, but I expect all security vendors to do be doing something [like this],” Mogull said. “Thats how youre going to find out what the new threats are, without compromising your real systems.”
IMlogic Inc. of Waltham, Mass., told eWEEK.com it would use IM honey pots to drive its Threat Center initiative, which will warn vendors of new spam and malware attacks.
Though Gartners Mogull wasnt at all surprised that IMlogic would employ this technique, legal issues still can arise from honey pots if security vendors and enterprises arent careful.
For one, enterprises could be found liable if hackers were to use honey pots as a launching pad to harm another entity.
“If youve created a dangerous, open resource, youve created a tool for hackers to use,” said Benjamin Wright, an attorney and instructor at the SANS Institute. “You need to avoid anything that encourages damage to a third party.”
One way to avoid that, he said, is to label the honey pot as off limits, or a resource that is private property, which outsiders are not authorized to use. Such labeling also would help ward off the common defense tactic of citing “entrapment” in the case of prosecution.
“Entrapment is when somebody induces the criminal to do something he was not otherwise imposed to do,” Wright said. He explained that its a common misconception that organizations can be sued for entrapment, when in reality, its used only to defend the accused and should not be a concern for enterprises.
Lance Spitzner, founder of the nonprofit security organization Honeynet Project, agreed, saying that neither liability nor entrapment has been an issue, but that privacy is a concern.
“From a privacy perspective, you need to consider what you capture, how you capture it, and what you use it for,” Spitzner said. He said the main concern surrounds violating the federal Wiretap Act, which prohibits intercepting the content of communications.
“Are you getting the conversations themselves?” he asked. “The more data youre pulling, the more potential privacy issues there are.”
If a firm is capturing transactional information such as IP addresses, or examining malware contained in the communications, there likely is little to be concerned about. IMlogic told eWEEK.com its honey pots would likely only receive spam or malware, so conversations wouldnt be an issue.
But there are still no hard and fast answers to some of these legal concerns.
“There is no absolute authority, because there are so many variables involved and no precedents,” Spitzner said. The Honeynet Project recently published a book on honey pots, which includes a chapter (here in PDF form) on legal concerns by Richard Salgado of the Department of Justice.
Security firm Sophos, based in the United Kingdom, isnt much concerned with the legal aspects of honey pots and is one of many vendors using various types to develop cyber-defenses.
“We receive millions of spam messages into our traps from around the world,” said Gregg Mastoras, senior security analyst at Sophos. “We take those messages, dissect them, try to understand them, where theyre coming from, and build protection around it for our clients.”
Because its a closed system—the spam and viruses the company receives dont get distributed from the Sophos system—and the company isnt building legal cases against spammers, there arent legal implications for its spam traps.
“Most of the security research companies use honey pots to get information on bad guys, malware, viruses and things like that,” Honeynets Spitzner said. “Honey pots are also becoming more commonly accepted, so theyre being used for marketing purposes by security firms.”
“If youre going to develop products and services to defeat these, youve got to understand the basics of what theyre delivering by actually getting some of them yourself,” Sophos Mastoras said.
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