Canary Tokens and Honeypots: Pieces of the Cybersecurity Puzzle, NOT the Ultimate Solution

A group of yellow canaries perched on top of a rock. Canary tokens are often used as a security measure to detect unauthorized access to a system. Image created by Firefly AI.

No matter the size of your organization, you face a constant barrage of cyberattacks, from data breaches to ransomware, making effective cyber defense the most important goal of CISOs and IT managers everywhere.  

Many of you have used Canary Tokens or Honeypots as a part of your defense strategy—some of you may be using them exclusively as your defense strategy.  

While these tools offer significant benefits in detecting and mitigating security threats, they should not be viewed as an end-all, be-all cyber defense. In fact, your organization should have a mature security program already in place before exploring canary tokens and honeypots. 

In this article, we’ll talk about the role canary tokens and honeypots play in bolstering an organization’s cybersecurity strategy. We’ll also get into their limitations as we advocate for a holistic approach to cybersecurity. And we’ll continue to emphasize the value added by a managed service partner like HBS. 

A digital artwork depicting a digital thief attempting to steal data from a honeypot, which is a decoy system designed to lure and trap hackers. Image created with the help of ImageFX.

What Are Canary Tokens and Honeypots? 

So, how do canary tokens work? Are canary tokens safe? What about honeypots? 

Canary tokens are strategically placed tripwires disguised as files, folders, or even URLs, luring cybercriminals away from genuine assets in an organization’s digital tenant as they attempt to gain access to your network. Accessed by an unauthorized user, this token triggers an alert, alerting you to a potential breach and, many times, misdirecting the attacker. 

Similar to canaries warning miners of toxic gas, they provide an early indication of trouble. If set up and managed correctly, canary tokens do not open you up to any additional threats—they are entirely safe. 

Honeypots, like canary tokens, are elaborate decoys—fake systems (servers, computers, etc.) mimicking legitimate parts of your network. 
 
Honeypots typically come in two varieties: 

  • Research: Gather information about attacks and are used specifically for studying malicious behavior.
  • Production: Help reveal internal compromise across your environment. 

Think about it like this: 

Canary tokens act as silent sentries, and honeypots are active players in the cybersecurity game. 

Let’s explore the value of these security measures, revealing how they can help you gain insights into attacker behavior and strengthen your overall cybersecurity posture. 

The Value of Canary Tokens and Honeypots 

A recent study by Verizon found that 68% of data breaches took months or even years to discover. Canary tokens and honeypots can significantly reduce this gap, providing near-real-time alerts and saving organizations thousands, even millions, of dollars. 

Imagine catching an intrusion attempt in its infancy, minimizing the damage, and saving valuable time and resources. The quicker a vulnerability is identified and dealt with, the more secure your organization becomes.  

Another compelling advantage of deception technology is that it disrupts attackers’ strategies. It forces them to spend their time deciphering the real from unreal, tilting the scale in your favor as your defense team can study attacker behavior and refine your defensive strategy. 

Canary tokens and honeypots are safe, effective, and valuable … but they can’t be your only line of defense.

A digital artwork showcasing a honeypot, a cybersecurity tool that mimics a vulnerable system to attract attackers, with a canary token, a hidden indicator of compromise, perched nearby on a shelf. Both the honeypot and the canary token help to detect and deter cyber threats. Image created by Firefly AI.

The Need for a Layered Defense 

While these tokens do a very good job detecting and deceiving threat actors, they don’t prevent initial access to the network. A sophisticated attacker (like a malicious AI) could potentially identify and bypass these canary tokens and honeypots.  

These tools complement but do not and cannot replace comprehensive cybersecurity measures. 

A layered security approach, one that employs multiple tools and best practices, is paramount. When you’re building a robust cybersecurity fortress, regular updates and replacing end-of-life software, employee training, access controls, and encryption are all crucial pieces of your castle. 

Continuous monitoring and incident response planning are essential components of your cybersecurity framework. A holistic approach to cyber defense includes canary tokens and honeypots, yes—but there’s a whole lot more that needs to be done if you want mature organizational resilience. 

Leveraging an Expert Cybersecurity Partner 

Cybersecurity shouldn’t break the bank. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. An IT partner with the cybersecurity experience and expertise of HBS can make all the difference for your organization. 

HBS offers scalable and cost-effective cybersecurity solutions tailored to your organization’s needs—whether you’re looking for an environment-wide assessment of your cyber defenses or searching for an expert team to proactively monitor and manage your entire tenant. 

HBS provides the solutions and services to keep your organization secure, reach out today. 

author avatar
Carly Westpfahl