Credential Breach Detection: Honeytoken as Defence Against Authentication Attacks

A simple, yet powerful approach to threat detection and malicious activity intelligence

· Software Security · Updated
By Jan Brennenstuhl · 9min read

Credential Breach Detection: Honeytoken as Defence Against Authentication Attacks


  • Honeytoken accounts are a tool that can help businesses detect data breaches. Creating a honeytoken account involves setting up canary traps by inventing sensitive data that appears legit PII.
  • When a threat actor stumbles upon a honeytoken account and attempts to use the fake credential set, it triggers an alert that notifies the system administrator or security analyst of the intrusion.
  • Honeytokens can’t prevent attacks but can function as threat detectors.

The Need for Honeytoken Accounts

In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, cybercriminals are devising new and sophisticated ways to exploit vulnerabilities and gain unauthorized access to sensitive information. With organizations of all sizes experiencing an alarming rise in credential breaches, it’s more important than ever to have robust defense and threat detection mechanisms in place.

Enter honeytoken accounts: a powerful yet often overlooked tool transforming how businesses detect data breaches and prevent authentication attacks. In this article, I’ll delve into honeytokens, explore their unique benefits, and reveal how they can serve as a formidable threat detection alert in your cybersecurity arsenal. So, buckle up and get ready to uncover the secret weapon that just might page your security team early enough in case of a data breach!

Threat detection & Credential Breaches

Detecting credential breaches can be a daunting challenge, and even with the right combination of strategies and tools, organizations can’t be sure about all their employed safety measures effectively safeguarding their sensitive data, like customer accounts and PII. Many companies today face reality where they are constantly tasked with verifying (supposedly) breached credentials that pop up in the darkest corners.

The Collection #1 breach from 2019, for example, included 2.7 billion email/ password pairs and affected many platforms and services around the web, not because they were actively breached but because large percentages of their customers constantly reuse their credentials on other solutions, as these alarming password reuse studies show. This fact alone renders credential breach verifications a tedious exercise.

At the same time, security teams have to deal with ever so expanding software supply chains leading to an organization’s infrastructure complexity constantly increasing. In short, suspicious activity is the default, and the recent waves of layoffs in IT companies around the globe do not reasonably contribute to reducing insider threats.

What are Honeytoken accounts, and how do they work?

Honeytoken accounts, sometimes called trap or decoy accounts, are a clever and creative way to detect unauthorized access and stay one step ahead of cybercriminals. Picture them as digital tripwires, alerting you when someone tries to break into your computer systems. Intrigued? Let’s dive deeper into the world of honeytoken accounts and see how they work.

At their core, honeytoken accounts are fake user accounts explicitly created to act as bait for cyber attackers. They’re designed to blend seamlessly with real accounts, making it difficult for hackers to distinguish between them. When threat actors stumble upon a honeytoken account and attempt to use the fake credential set, it triggers an alert that notifies the system administrator or security analyst of the intrusion.

The beauty of honeytoken accounts lies in their simplicity. Planting these decoys throughout your system or network can lure hackers into revealing their presence. This gives your security team valuable information about the attacker’s methods and tactics, enabling them to respond quickly and effectively to mitigate potential threats.

In summary, honeytoken accounts are an ingenious and proactive approach to detecting unauthorized access. They allow security teams to set traps that function as web beacons and trigger alerts for your security analysts in case honeytoken authentication activity is registered. By incorporating them into your cybersecurity strategy, you can either catch an attacker in the act or detect malicious actors post-breach.

Types of Honey Tokens

Different types of honey tokens can be used in various ways, such as creating decoy email addresses, placing a fake file containing bogus sensitive information, or even setting up false API keys:

Fake Email Addresses

The idea behind using fake email addresses as honeytokens is to create convincing decoy accounts that blend in with real ones, making it difficult for hackers to distinguish between them. Curious about how it works? Let’s explore this creative cybersecurity technique.

To begin with, you’ll want to create a fake email address that appears genuine and closely resembles your organization’s actual email addresses. This could involve using a similar top-level domain, following the same naming conventions, or even incorporating the names of real employees. The key is to make it look authentic so that hackers are tempted to target it.

Once you set up your fake email address, the next step is strategically placing it within your organization’s digital landscape. This could involve including it in publicly accessible documents, online directories, text files, or even embedding it within, e.g., an internal website’s code. By doing this, you’re essentially laying a digital breadcrumb trail for cybercriminals to follow.

When an attacker comes across a fake email address and decides to target it with phishing emails, spam, or other malicious activities, it triggers an alert. This notification informs your security analysts that someone is attempting to exploit the decoy address, allowing them to quickly respond and investigate the incident. In the process, they can gather invaluable information about the attacker’s methods, tactics and even determine the extent of their knowledge about your organization.

Fake Database Records

You’ll want to create fake database records that convincingly blend in with your actual data. This could involve creating decoy customer profiles, transactions, or relevant data that match your organization’s structure and environment. The crucial element here is to make these fake records appear genuine, enticing cybercriminals to interact with them.

Once you have your fake database records ready, the next step is to carefully embed them within your actual database. Be sure to scatter them among nonfictional records, making it challenging for hackers to identify the decoys. While doing this, set up monitoring tools and paging mechanisms to notify your security teams when these fake records are accessed, modified, or exported.

When an attacker infiltrates your system and interacts with the fake database records, it triggers an incident, allowing your security analysts to quickly identify, respond and investigate the incident. As they gather information about the attacker’s methods, tactics, and potential targets, they can take appropriate measures to mitigate the threat and strengthen your organization’s defenses.

Fake Executable Files

Fake executables can go a few steps further, as they often are very much like malware, except they’re created and manipulated for defensive purposes against a threat. The software or application can contain backchannels that return data back to you when threat actors interact with them. While it is theoretically possible that fake executable files could cause damage to an attacker’s systems, they can only work as long as attackers cannot effectively protect their devices.

How to create a Honeytoken Account?

Creating honeytokens for customer accounts means setting up canary traps by inventing sensitive data that appears to be legit PII. Often the most rudimentary subset of information necessary for such a honey token involves email address, password hash, and names.

When you now ask ChatGPT for a set of fake customer data, alter the generated email addresses so that they nicely blend into your customers. If you, for example, conduct business mostly with people from Spain, give them some nice Spanish TLDs. Also, create hashes that match your hash algorithm based on passwords that people commonly use instead of super long, randomized strings. This way, your own honeytokens might even be crackable by the attacker. The honey credentials must appear natural and smell like real value.

Once you are done with your preparations, feed the fake data into your customer DB and set up alerting for honeytoken authentication activity with your identity provider.

How to detect threats with Honeytoken Accounts?

If you follow the approach outlined above, this part of your threat detection is fully automated without needing to actively monitor around the clock. The identity provider or authorization server will detect threats when attackers gain access using the honey credentials.

Furthermore, even with malicious activity on your site, you will be able to quickly assess the validity of a potential breach data next time external security researchers reach out with critical information or your own threat intelligence team gets their hands on email/ password collections attributed to your organization.

Of course, honey tokens can only be one puzzle piece within your threat detection toolset. The low effort and neglectable cost factors make it a simple approach you should consider in your everyday security practice.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What Is a Honeypot vs. Honey Token?

Honeypots and honeytokens, while sharing a similar purpose, have distinct roles in cybersecurity. They both serve as digital traps to detect and analyze cybercriminal activities. A honeypot is a decoy system or network resource designed to appear as a legitimate and valuable target to attackers. It can mimic servers, databases, or other network components, enticing cybercriminals to interact with it. Once the attacker engages with the honeypot, their activities are monitored, logged, and analyzed.

On the other hand, a honeytoken is a specific type of digital bait, such as a fake user account, email address, or file, strategically placed within an organization’s systems or network. Like a honeypot, it is designed to attract attackers but focuses on individual elements rather than an entire system.

Can Honeytokens Prevent Supply Chain Attacks?

Cyber-security techniques never can or will prevent any attack on the supply chain or via other angles. In general, honey tokens function as a threat detector rather than threat prevention. Since supply chain attackers could breach target systems via compromised vendors, honeytoken deployment can provide a genuine approach for digital supply chain attack detection when incorporated into processes and data exposed to the vendors.

How can Honeytokens help security teams?

As ingenious digital traps, Honeytokens can provide security teams with a proactive edge in the battle against cyber threats. They offer several key benefits, making them an invaluable tool for enhancing an organization’s cybersecurity strategy. The essential advantage lies in the early detection of breaches and enhanced threat intelligence.

Portrait of Jan Brennenstuhl
Written by Jan Brennenstuhl

Jan Brennenstuhl is a Principal Software Engineer at Zalando SE, balancing security with friction for their customers. He built an IAM team and brought single sign-on (SSO) to Europe's largest e-commerce fashion platform.