SSH Honeypots

Three years ago I was experimenting with high-interaction SSH honeypots. I failed to document the effort as a blog post afterwards. Fortunately, I’ve been experimenting with honeypots again, so I’m taking the time to document it this time.

A honeypot is a fake service or computer on a network used in detecting and deflecting attacks on the network. Ideally, an attacker is unable to tell honeypots apart from real systems, attacking the honeypots instead. In general, honeypots fall into two categories: high-interaction and low-interaction. The former will imitate a real system with high fidelity while the latter may just listen for connections on common ports, without actually accepting or sending data.

What triggered my curiosity was that I wanted to put OpenBSD’s securelevel(7) feature to the test. In short, it’s a runtime system value that ranges from -1 (least secure) to 2 (most secure), and it’s not possible to decrease the level without gaining physical access to the system. Each increase makes the system more read-only, and less flexible, so it’s a trade-off. A system running at level 2 should not carry over any state between boots — like a LiveCD on a system with no disks.

I set up a fresh OpenBSD install in a QEMU virtual machine, locked the system down with securelevel at 1, forwarded the SSH port all the way out to the Internet, and than gave Gavin the root password. I told him to go nuts, with the ultimate goal that when he was done I should be unable to tell he had even logged into the system. All of the system logs were set to append-only, enforced through the kernel by securelevel, so this should have been a very difficult task indeed.

It turned out he was much more successful than I expected. When he told me he was done, I SSHed into the system to check the logs finding that there were no entries indicating he logged in at all. The only proof I could find that he was actually in was a message he intentionally left behind for me. Did he just subvert securelevel?!

Turns out not quite. Whew! I was just putting too much trust into a system I knew was compromised. He mounted a loopback filesystem over top of the /var/log, then filled it with fake logs. He also sabotaged the mount programs so that they’d hide the loopback mount from me. Since the mount programs were on a read-only system, he had to do a loopback mount there, too. After restarting OpenSSH, it was no longer writing to the append-only log, but to the doctored log.

So, the proper way to check your security logs is by mounting the compromised filesystem in a known trusted system — or, in this case, just rebooting would have fixed it. Even with securelevel, you can’t check the compromised system in-place. Let this be a lesson to all those amateur sysadmins out there (including me)!

We did a second round and he managed to trick me again by taking me further into the rabbit hole. Instead of loopback mounts, since I was expecting that, he had root log into a chroot environment, filled with a full copy of the system including fake logs. This version survived reboots and really required inspection from an external system.

After all this, I wanted to crank things up a notch by letting some real attackers into my test system. I was already accustomed to seeing many password-guesses on my SSH server in the logs, so getting someone into my honeypot wouldn’t take long at all. While I didn’t care of they trashed my VM — restoring from snapshot was an automatic process — I really didn’t want them to take advantage of my Internet connection, using it for DDoS attacks or pivoting to attack other SSH servers. So I needed a way to allow them in though SSH, but not allow any other traffic out.

If I was doing this today, I’d probably use iptables to only allow SSH in, and then bridge the VM to the Internet with a TUN/TAP, replacing my real SSH server on port 22. However, three years ago I didn’t know how to do this. Instead I found a really simple hack to get this done: tsocks. tsocks adds SOCKS proxying to any application by replacing the sockets API with its own. In my case, I wrapped the VM in tsocks configured to use a non-existent SOCKS proxy ( It could accept any incoming connection (though limited to SSH because of NAT) but unable to make any outgoing connections. Perfect!

I hadn’t realized it yet, but this was a high-interaction SSH honeypot I created.

I set the root password to “password” and let it go for awhile, tailing the OpenSSH logs to watch for activity. The brute-force bots would eventually make their way inside but immediately log out and keep guessing passwords for root. Either they were really poorly programmed or they were specifically testing for honeypots that allow different passwords. They must have logged the address for a human to investigate some time in the future, because I never witnessed any shell activity. On the other hand, this was all very difficult to observe, for the same reasons Gavin was able to cover his tracks. My honeypot was useful for catching and detecting attackers, but it wasn’t good for observing them in action.

While I was investigating this I came across Kojoney, which is a low-interaction SSH honeypot mainly for seeing what sorts of passwords attackers were guessing. Unfortunately, I could never get it to work, so I never used it.

Several years passed and I recently came across a project that didn’t exist last time: kippo, a “medium”-interaction SSH honeypot. This is everything I was looking for before. It doesn’t require a full-blown VM, it’s has high fidelity interaction, it’s safe, and it allows me to fully observe all activity — it even records the tty session for replay. Cool!

kippo is written in pure Python, so there shouldn’t be any buffer overflows, and doesn’t execute any external programs. It should be safe, but I’m not aware of any real security reviews, so it’s a use-at-your-own risk thing. They warn about this on their website.

I’ve run this off and on on the weekends. Since I haven’t run my real SSH server on port 22 since 2009 (no recorded attacks since!), my IP address atracts much less attention than before, so it hasn’t seen too much activity. I have had two humans connect and log in. Both downloaded a well-known script kiddie tool called Here’s an analysis of the tool by someone who was actually attacked with it: SSH Bruteforce.

In fact, is so well known that it gave me a little scare. In my tty recording it looked like the tool was actually executed! The skull banner printed out and it had an interface. I was really nervous until I found kippo’s Kippo actually recognizes some script kiddie tools and imitates their interfaces to further confuse attackers. I do run kippo as an unprivileged user so it wouldn’t be the end of the world if something did happen, but I’d still be uncomfortable.

There’s neat feature of kippo, which hilariously caught Gavin off-guard when I had him poke at it. kippo will never disconnect a session on its own. If an exit or C-d is given, it drops into another fake shell with the hostname “localhost”, merely pretending to log out. That way you get a chance to see some commands the attackers are meaning to run on their own system, before they realize their mistake. The only way to disconnected is to either close your terminal emulator or use SSH’s ~. escape sequence.

I’ve been considering running kippo all the time with no password set — using it as a true honeypot. This would help keep anyone from finding my real SSH server, since they would find the honeypot and stop searching other ports. It would also waste time that could be spent attacking other people’s real SSH servers, helping to protect other servers out there. My real SSH server (on my router) doesn’t allow password logins, only key logins, so I already feel pretty good about its security. I’ve never seen a brute-force attempt on the current port anyway. But if I do, I now have kippo as another tool in my security toolbelt.

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Chris Wellons (PGP)
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