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Crafting an Effective Cyber Deception

posted Jun 24, 2016, 8:28 AM by Michael Lenart   [ updated Aug 20, 2016, 5:31 AM ]
By Adam Tyra, Contributing Editor


Successful armies have often relied on deception to decide the outcome of individual battles and even entire campaigns. At the Battle of Hastings in AD 1066, William the Conqueror employed a false retreat to cause his enemy to expose his flanks and was thereby able to gain a decisive victory (and conquer England). [1] At the operational level, Egyptian forces staged a number of military exercises and deceptive maneuvers to lull and confuse the Israelis just before attacking across the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. [2]

Perhaps the best example of a large-scale integrated deception was Operation Fortitude, conducted in support of the Allied Invasion of Normandy in 1944. As part of Fortitude, Allied war planners created the First United States Army Group (FUSAG), consisting of fictional armies of inflatable tanks and plywood trucks supported by fake airfields, warehouses, and barracks. [3] The Allies also filled the airwaves with false radio traffic, knowing German listening posts would intercept it. The keystone of the deception was the very public assignment of American General George S. Patton to command FUSAG. Patton, well-known to the Germans, traveled conspicuously throughout England to inspect his “armies”- the massive force ostensibly poised to invade France at the Pas de Calais. The German high command believed so strongly in the Allies’ narrative that forces needed for the defense of Normandy weren’t released from their defensive positions in Calais until days after the Allies had established a strong Normandy beachhead. [4]                 


Just as deception has enabled success on the kinetic battlefield for millennia, it’s gaining a place in the defensive cyber toolkit for many sophisticated organizations. Most cybersecurity professionals are familiar with honeypots and their more sophisticated cousin the honeynet. These are usually deployed for one of two purposes: adversary detection and research. As an adversary detection mechanism, honeypots are expected to entice an attacker into connecting under the premise that a legitimate user would never connect to a system that doesn’t offer any real services on the network. As a research tool, honeypots are used to observe the behavior of attackers and collect malware and tool samples. By allowing an adversary to break into the system, researchers can gather data about the latest tactics and techniques used by attackers who might be targeting their organization.

This article will focus on crafting deceptions for the defense. Honeypots and honeynets aren’t the only tools of deception available to cyber defenders. Deceptions can be created using practically any means available, and the utility of deception as a defensive tool extends far beyond detection and research. However, unlike other cybersecurity tools, deception doesn’t come with a user guide. Many defenders struggle to deploy deception effectively, and this has resulted in a loss of stakeholder confidence in deception as a worthwhile use of resources. By examining specific difficulties that many organizations experience with deception tactics, defenders can gain insight into the conditions required for success in cyber deceptions. This insight can then be combined with a basic deception methodology and a bit of adversary focus to craft effective cyber deceptions that enhance security and lead attackers down the path to defeat.    

Difficulties with deception

Deceiving an adversary requires an ability to anticipate the conclusions an observer will draw in response to indicators provided by the deceiver. That is, defenders must have the ability to see through the adversary’s eyes, think like the adversary, and decide as the adversary would. In cases where defenders have the insight to do all this, a deception may still fail to achieve its intent due to a lack of measures of effectiveness, a lack of integration with the rest of the defensive concept, or even due to cognitive and logical failures.

Lack of measures of effectiveness

The main difficulty that many organizations experience with cyber deception is the inability to determine whether the deception has succeeded. This takes away their ability to control the deception, which results in a waste of resources on ineffective lines of effort. During Operation Fortitude, the Allies leveraged a network of double agents to feed the Germans disinformation about the upcoming invasion. [5] Just as the loyalty of a double agent flows in both directions, their existence allows information to flow in both directions as well. Allied war planners were able to judge the effectiveness of their deception by the type of information Germany requested from its agents. When the Germans began tasking double agents to gather information about fictional military units, Fortitude’s planners knew they’d succeeded. This feedback loop was also critical in identifying ineffective elements of the deception, because the Allies could assume that the Germans would not request additional detail on reports that they did not consider credible.

Most cyber deceptions lack this feedback loop. Consider an organization that deploys a honeynet in order to distract intruders on their internal network from legitimate high value targets. If defenders never observe anyone interacting with the honeynet, they cannot conclude that their network hasn’t been breached.  Instead, it may be the case that an adversary has recognized the honeynet for a deception and avoided it. It may also be the case that an adversary has failed to observe the honeynet altogether and instead discovered and exploited their intended target without being detected. The fact that defenders usually can’t observe attacker behavior directly means that they must devote extra effort to devising appropriate measures of effectiveness to avoid wasting resources on ineffective deceptions.

Lack of integration

While deception has been noted as a key pillar in many historical battlefield successes, it has no ability to succeed on its own. Indeed, the one characteristic in common among each of the anecdotes discussed in this article is the fact that the side that successfully employed deception had the resources required to exploit their success. Few deceptions are strong enough to convince a dominant attacker to avoid battle altogether or to convince a defender to yield to an inferior force without a fight. The same is true for effective cyber deceptions. Defenders must already have implemented a robust concept of defense rooted in a comprehensive security monitoring and incident response capability before resorting to deception.

Many organizations, desperate to quickly deploy any mechanism that might increase their chances of detecting or deterring an attacker, fail to do this. Instead, they use cyber deception piecemeal and in an uncoordinated way by focusing on simple tricks like changing service banners, using unexpected names for privileged accounts (shunning the “admin” and “root” user names), and deploying honeypots. While these ploys are genuinely clever and useful, they can’t thwart a determined attacker for any length of time on their own.

Defenders should think of cyber deception as an obstacle- it may slow an attacker, but it won’t stop a determined one without backing from additional defensive measures. U.S. military doctrine offers an additional parallel between obstacles and a well-integrated cyber deception: “The effectiveness of obstacles is enhanced considerably when covered by observation and fire.” [6] The reason for this is straightforward. Consider a wire fence intended to block enemy maneuver. If defenders didn’t have the fence under observation with the ability to fire at those who approached it, nothing would stop an enemy from simply cutting the wire and breaching the fence. The same is true of cyber defenses. Defenders must diligently watch and maintain their deception mechanisms and keep them synchronized with the rest of the defense in order for them to perform their desired function in altering the behavior of an attacker. When a deception has succeeded, defenders must also be prepared to exploit their success immediately in order to eradicate intruders or protect critical resources.

Cognitive challenges

The reasons a deception succeeds are deeply rooted in the hopes, fears, prejudices, and vanities of an adversary. The reasons a deception fails are usually attributable to the deceiver. In order to predict an attacker’s reaction to each element of a deception and to the deception story as a whole, the defender must be able to anticipate the reasoning and conclusions of the attacker. Empathizing with an adversary well enough to project how he will react in the future requires considerable insight that cyber defenders have little opportunity to gain. When the defender has enough information about an attacker to draw conclusions, he may still fail in developing an effective cyber deception due to one or more failures in logic. The following are a few cognitive challenges that thwart cyber defenders in crafting an effective deception.


Mirror-imaging is the assumption by a defender (conscious or unconscious) that the adversary thinks the same way as the defender himself. [7] Mirror-imaging derails the entire analysis of a deception plan from the assessment of the way an adversary will interpret observed indicators, and instead results in an assessment of how the defender would react under the same circumstances. Would-be deceivers who make the mistake of projecting themselves into the adversary’s shoes only succeed in deceiving themselves.

Rational Actor Hypothesis

The rational actor hypothesis, closely related to mirror-imaging, assumes that an adversary not only reasons carefully before taking action but also that his definition of rational behavior matches that of the defender. The rational actor hypothesis perverts the defender’s expected outcome of a deception and may affect future analyses if observed adversary behavior causes defenders to conclude that, in fact, an attacker is not rational. Instead, the adversary might just be following different standards of behavior or even specific rules of engagement. Defenders should remember that their list of resources on the network that should be considered high-value probably doesn’t match the attacker’s list, and attackers additionally have their own agenda that almost certainly isn’t what the defender thinks it is.

Target Fixation

Target fixation results when defenders become so focused on a particular issue that they fail to observe the “big picture.” Second World War military aviators on ground attack runs were sometimes observed to concentrate so hard on targets that they missed the ground itself rushing to meet them, and crashed into it. [8] Similarly, defenders thinking deeply about a single attacker or defended asset in creating a deception may misinterpret the attacker’s intentions or neglect considering risks to other organizational assets. In this, even successful deceptions may prove irrelevant when they fail to divert an adversary from his true objective. Worse, by becoming enamored with the idea of tricking an attacker, defenders may devote an unwarranted amount of available time and resources to planning and deploying a deception that can’t deliver a reasonable return on investment. Target fixation can also result in the failure to integrate a deception appropriately, as discussed above.

Deceiving effectively

Cyber deception has become so fashionable within the past few years that there now exist several complete Linux distros packed with dozens of standalone tools assembled with the express purpose of enabling easy deployment of deception mechanisms. These are all freely available for defenders, and they range in capability from simulating a single SSH server all the way to simulating entire networks of specific industrial control systems. Unfortunately, this wealth of available tools is not accompanied by a similarly sophisticated body of knowledge describing how to assemble an effective deception. Many defenders don’t recognize this gap and seem to equate the ability to download and run a tool with the ability to deploy an effective deception. This is not the case.

While crafting an effective cyber deception requires careful planning and integration within a larger concept of cyber defense, it also requires a methodology to guide planning and deployment. The U.S. military employs such a methodology to assist with development of deceptions that support combat operations. Although developed with kinetic warfare in mind, imaginative defenders can apply it to the cyber domain without much difficulty.

Crafting an effective deception begins with a simple premise: Successful deceptions are those which not only cause an adversary to believe that the deception is true; he must also act or fail to act in a way that results in a benefit to defenders. An effective deception follows a straightforward methodology: See, Think, Do. [9]


Defenders must show or allow an adversary to perceive some information, condition, or event to create a deception. The narrative that a defender expects the adversary to weave together upon being exposed to the deception is known as the deception story. The individual for whom the deception is being created is known as the target. Note that targets are always individuals. Organizations and computers don’t have brains and therefore cannot be deceived.  

The things that are shown to an adversary as part of the deception are known as indicators. An indicator can be as simple as the banner presented to an attacker when he connects to a service or as complex as falsified technical drawings and business plans. Indicators are created using two basic activities- ruses and displays.

A ruse is a simple trick designed to deceive an adversary. [10] Ruses are useful for creating single indicators in support of a larger deception plan. Altering the service banner of a web server to cause it to identify itself as a different version is one example of a simple ruse.

A display showcases a collection of indicators to realize a deception story. [11] Displays can include ruses, simulations, disguises, honeypots, honeynets, or any other mechanism useful for conveying information that supports the deception.

This portion of the deception should be informed by intelligence about the capabilities of the expected adversary when possible. This allows defenders to ensure that they don’t expend resources on indicators that the adversary isn’t capable of perceiving. During the Second World War, the Allies mounted a series of deception operations (collectively known as Operation Cockade) throughout 1943 intended to convince the Germans that a cross-channel invasion was imminent in order to prevent them from exerting additional pressure on the Soviet Union by transporting forces to the east. [12] One component of this deception was a series of commando raids into northern France (Operation Forfar) to capture German soldiers for interrogation. The intent was for defenders to interpret the repeated raids as a reconnaissance effort in advance of an actual invasion near Boulogne. Forfar deceived no one. Many of the raiders failed to come ashore due to strong defenses, and those that did were unable to do little more than cut a few sections of barbed wire. In the end, the Germans didn’t even realize that the raids had occurred- a complete failure to perceive the deception story.

Defenders should also consider their own capabilities for this portion of the deception plan. Many cyber deception discussions focus on honeypots and honeynets, but any source of information used by an adversary can be useful in a deception. For example, attackers are known to gather information about the types of systems used by an intended target by perusing job listings and by reading the job responsibilities of current employees on sites like LinkedIn. Defenders might consider creating fake job postings for staff to work on systems that they don’t actually have. They might also create fake employee social media profiles filled with irrelevant skills and experience. Fake personas have actually become so common in online deception that they have a clever name- sock puppets. [13]

Maxims of Military Deception [14] – Table 1

Magruder's principle It is generally easier to induce an enemy to maintain a pre-existing belief than to present notional evidence to change that belief.
Limitations to human
information processing
Human information processing is limited in two general ways that are useful in deception:
    1. The law of small numbers states that decisions which
    are based on a very small set of data are inherently low
    quality. For example, a person who has never met
    someone named Muhammed may believe that this name
    is uncommon. However, Muhammed is the most 
    common male name in the world.
    2. Deception targets are susceptible to conditioning. 
    That is, they are generally unable to detect small 
    changes in indicators over time even when the
    cumulative change is large. For example, a gradual
    increase in the volume of network traffic might
    successfully hid data exfiltration from defenders.

Cry wolf Repeated false alarms desensitize deception targets before an event. 
Jones' dilemma Deception becomes more difficult as the number of channels of information available to the target increases. Each additional channel increases the target’s ability to discount the deception story.
A choice among types of deception Where possible, the objective of the deception planner should be to reduce the uncertainty in the mind of the target, to force him to seize upon a notional worldview as being correct- not making him less certain of the truth, but more certain of a particular falsehood.
Axelrod's contribution There are circumstances where deception assets should be kept in reserve, awaiting a more fruitful use- despite the costs of maintenance and risk of waste. 
A sequencing rule Deception activities should be sequenced so as to maximize the portrayal of the deception story for as long as possible. In other words, red-handed activities- indicators of true friendly intent- should be deferred to the last possible instant.    
The importance of feedback A scheme to ensure accurate feedback increases the chance of success in deception. 
The monkey's paw Deception efforts may produce subtle and unwanted side effects. Planners should be sensitive to such possibilities and, where prudent, take steps to minimize these counter-productive aspects. 
Care in the design of
planned placement of
deceptive material
Great care must be exercised in the design of schemes to leak notional plans to the enemy.  Apparent windfalls are subject to close scrutiny and often disbelieved. On the other hand, genuine leaks often occur under circumstances thought improbable .    



Defenders must determine what conclusions they intend for the adversary to draw after being exposed to the deception. Then, they must craft a story that describes the conditions or events that the adversary needs to be shown in order to reach the expected conclusions. For example, if defenders want an attacker to believe that they are using Apache web servers, then they must alter web server banners, so they appear similar to those presented by Apache servers.

The indicators that the adversary sees as part of the deception shouldn’t just support the story. Ideally, they will force the adversary to conclude that the only explanation for what they are seeing is the story that the defender wants them to believe. Thus, the best indicators are those with an unambiguous meaning. However, these are more easily described than created. 

The “think” component of the deception is heavily reliant on the defender’s understanding of potential attackers, and it can be quickly derailed by the cognitive challenges described earlier. Cultural and language differences are another potential source of problems. The difficulty for defenders with conveying the right message in support of a deception is further exacerbated by the limitations imposed by the cyber domain. The attack surface presented by the organization and the data contained by compromised systems are the primary means of communication available for many deceptions, so defenders must plan carefully in order to convey their deception story clearly and without contradictions.

Defenders should also consider that an attacker might need to be shown a series of mutually supporting indicators using various means before they draw the necessary conclusions. Each deception mechanism is referred to as a channel, and the most convincing deceptions are multi-channel. In the months prior to 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, American forces constructed an elaborate deception story to convince Iraqi forces that their main effort would include direct assaults into Kuwait through the Wadi al Batin and via an amphibious landing onto the beaches adjacent to Kuwait City. [15] This deception was supported by the large-scale movement of troops to the border of western Kuwait, elaborate training exercises simulating cross-border raids, and full-scale mockups constructed to resemble Iraqi positions in the alleged attack area. American troops did this in full view of Iraqi surveillance and even allowed preparations to be covered extensively by international news media. (The deception could literally be seen on multiple channels.) Just prior to the real attack, American forces conducted diversionary attacks into the Wadi al Batin to convince the Iraqis to move even more forces away from the real attack area. The aggregate effect of this complex multi-channel deception was for large portions of the Iraqi military to remain in Kuwait and out of the path of the real coalition main effort, resulting in one of the shortest ground wars in history.     

Destroyed Iraqi Republican Guard vehicles line Highway 8 in Kuwait following a successful deception. 


An effective deception must cause an adversary to do or not do something useful for the defense. Defenders must identify exactly what they want this to be before they begin planning the deception. For example, defenders may decide that the best way to detect hidden adversaries is to channel them to a network segment or host instrumented with specialized monitoring technologies. We’ll call this the “kill zone.” In order for attackers to do this, they need to believe that the kill zone contains something that they want- sensitive data, user credentials, a data storage location, access to some target system, etc.

The sophistication of the deception story required to entice this behavior will depend on the sophistication of the attacker. Advanced attackers who intend to retain access to a network for the long term will be wary of detection and will likely see through clumsy deception attempts. Defenders won’t be able to simply plant a sign in the middle of the network that reads, “Free data this way!” Instead, defenders will need to leave clues- unencrypted emails that discuss the kill zone, easily stolen credentials that match hosts connected to the kill zone, apparent backup data transfers to servers in the kill zone, etc. Some of these clues must be made difficult for the attacker to acquire, so he doesn’t feel as though he’s being fed information. If the attacker believes that he has pieced together a puzzle that defenders didn’t want him to see, he will be more likely to take the action desired of him by the deception plan. Depending on the attacker’s personality, he may also act in the desired way after succumbing to pride, greed, impatience, or even contempt for the “idiots” defending this network who failed to hide their crown jewels from his clever sleuthing.

The book The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, features a great example of this type of deception. The book’s author, Clifford Stoll, discusses his efforts to identify a West German hacker lurking in the network of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL). [16] Stoll had difficulty tracing the physical location of the attacker due to the brevity of his connections to the network and the unpredictability of his visits. After surmising that the hacker was interested in national defense-related data, Stoll crafted and planted an elaborate and extensive collection of sizable documents purported to relate to work involving the United States’ Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)- the proposed 1980’s space and ground-based missile defense system. Besides enticing the attacker to return again and again to LBL’s network, Stoll also desired for him to remain connected for lengthier sessions in order to allow the time needed by authorities to complete a trace of the hacker’s location. The deception was effective. West German police successfully apprehended Markus Hess, an agent of the Soviet KGB, shortly after he downloaded the SDI documents.

One other aspect of the “Do” portion of the deception plan merits discussion. The adversary must actually be capable of performing the action desired of him. Consider a deception story that is expected to entice an attacker into trying to hack into a particular Linux-based system in order to trigger an alert. If this honeypot is protected too strongly (firewall properly configured, strong credentials for remote access, etc.), the attacker may not be able to kick down the door to get to the honey, and the deception will probably fail.

Deception planning

Thorough planning is required to realize the components of an effective deception. “See, Think, Do” may describe the deception from the perspective of the adversary, but deception planning occurs in the reverse order. Defenders start by identifying the action they want the adversary to take- the Do. Next, they determine what an adversary must think in order to decide to take the desired action. Finally, they select indicators for the adversary to see that will cause an adversary to draw the desired conclusions.

The Cuckoo’s Egg provides some insight into the scale of effort required for deception planning. Clifford Stoll’s SDI deception took months to assemble and execute, and he benefited from support from various government agencies before and during the deception. In addition to the SDI documents themselves, Stoll’s team created fictitious personas with corresponding accounts to own the documents on the network, as well as fictitious email traffic discussing them.

He was also able to develop significant insight about Hess by observing his activities in real time on a number of occasions. This allowed Stoll to predict, with a high degree of certainty, what he needed to show his adversary in order to cause him to act in the desired way. In this, he benefited from one of the maxims of deception identified by the U.S. Army. Magruder’s Principle states that, “It is generally easier to induce an enemy to maintain a pre-existing belief than to present notional evidence to change that belief.” [17] Based on the network activity that he observed, Stoll was able to surmise that Hess believed that LBL was involved in classified weapons research similar to that conducted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a similarly named but separate facility. The See, Think, Do description of Stoll's deception is outlined in Table 2.  

Elements of the SDINET Deception from The Cuckoo’s Egg – Table 2

See-LBL is a United States National Laboratory.
-Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (an unrelated facility with a similar name to LBL) conducts national security research (including   nuclear weapons research) for the U.S. government.
-LBL staff are communicating via email about the Strategic Defense Initiative program.
-The LBL network has an account called “SDINET”.
-The SDINET account owns a number of sizable documents with restricted access.
-The SDINET documents appear to contain sensitive data about the SDI program.
-LBL is engaged in classified government research.
-LBL's research involves the SDI.
-LBL has stored sensitive data regarding its SDI work on its network.
-The SDINET documents contain valuable intelligence data and are therefore worth the risk of remaining connected to the LBL network for an extended period of time.
Do-The deception target will initiate future connections to the LBL network.
-The deception target will locate documents that appear to be associated with the U.S. government’s SDI program.
-The deception target will attempt to download copies of the SDI documents from the LBL network.
-The deception target will remain connected to the LBL network until document downloads are complete.

Measure performance and effectiveness

Cyber deception plans should also include measures of performance and measures of effectiveness. Measures of performance tell defenders when their target has observed the deception, while measures of effectiveness indicate whether the target has accepted the deception story and is acting in the desired way. Devising measures of performance in the cyber domain is straightforward, because computers can easily record every instance when a particular piece of data was read and by whom (username, source IP address). Defenders can know the very instant that a deceptive file posted on a web server has been downloaded or a connection is made to a deceptive service. They can also take steps to instrument some file types by embedding active content, so they’ll know immediately when files are opened and read.

Assessing the effectiveness of a cyber deception requires a bit more cunning. Defenders will need to use some imagination to devise measures of effectiveness, since they usually won’t be able to directly observe the activities of cyber adversaries. Consider the “Do” that is desired of the attacker. Deceptions should be structured to compel an attacker to do something whenever possible to avoid placing defenders in the awkward position of needing to observe activity not occurring. But if the deception causes an attacker to act, defenders can use security monitoring tools deployed on key network segments and hosts to detect it.

Defenders can also look for other, more subtle measures of effectiveness. A cyber canary, like the canaries used by miners to warn them of potentially deadly fumes, can serve as a useful measure of effectiveness when integrated with a deception plan. Cyber canaries are similar to honeypots in their ability to signal defenders when an attacker has performed some unambiguously malicious activity, but they’re usually not interactive like a honeypot. For example, network administrators could add canary accounts to their domain to signal malicious activity. Ideally, these accounts would appear privileged (reintroduce the “admin” username) but would not subject the organization to risk if compromised. Since the canary accounts don’t belong to an actual user, any login attempts for one of these accounts should instantly generate an alert. Canary accounts could easily be integrated with a deception by associating them with fake personas, stashing them (in easily decrypted form) on honeypot systems, or even selectively leaking them to would-be social engineers.  

Integrate deception with other defenses

Deception in the cyber domain, while powerful, is unlikely to affect adversaries as strongly as deception in the physical domain and therefore requires integration with other defensive measures. In the physical domain, for instance, deception can create a strong deterrent effect on its own. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union engaged in a massive strategic deception against the United States. This effort, known as the Shelepin Plan, spread disinformation about Soviet military capabilities on a massive scale in an effort to prevent military confrontation with the West. Notably, Shelepin contributed to the late 1950’s “missile gap” wherein the United States overestimated the Soviets’ number of available ballistic missiles by orders of magnitude. [18] In truth, the Soviets had a mere four missiles capable of reaching the United States. [19]

In the cyber domain, deterrence is more difficult, due to the difficulty in attributing attacks and legal issues related to retaliation. Thus, cyber defenders must nest deception plans within a larger overall concept of cyber defense rather than attempt to deploy deception on its own. Besides supporting the security of the organization, integration has two additional benefits. First, integration ensures that the deception doesn’t try to tell a story inconsistent with the other characteristics of the organization that the adversary can observe. Soviet forces during the Second World War routinely attempted to employ decoy radio traffic to deceive the German forces opposing them. [20] These deceptions continually failed due to the Germans’ ability to discount what they heard by cross-referencing the traffic with other intelligence sources such as aerial reconnaissance. The Soviets failed to integrate what they did with what they said, dooming their deception efforts.  

Integration also ensures that defenders have considered and emplaced additional countermeasures to detect and eradicate intruders in the event that their deception activities don’t succeed. This is an area where deception planning can actually support the development of the larger defensive plan. By considering the various options available to an attacker after being exposed to a deception story, defenders can identify adversary courses of action that are likely to bypass existing security monitoring mechanisms and shift defensive resources appropriately.


Defenders must consider that adversaries may themselves attempt to execute their own deceptions against the organization. In fact, the effectiveness of social engineering tactics in circumventing cyber defenses strongly supports the assertion that deception will likely constitute an attacker’s main effort during the early stages of practically every computer intrusion. Notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick describes a number of such attacks in his book Ghost in the Wires. In one anecdote, Mitnick claims to have compromised the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) “through an elaborate social engineering attack.” [21] He goes on to detail how he aggregated a number of pieces of publicly available information to learn enough about the SSA’s organization, hierarchy, procedures, and jargon to convince an unwitting employee that he was with the SSA’s inspector general’s office and needed her help with a number of “investigations.” With this ruse, Mitnick was able to gain regular access to sensitive personal information on virtually any American including addresses, social security numbers, and income histories. He went on to leverage this illicit access to successfully identify an undercover federal agent who was investigating him.

Cybersecurity professionals might maintain a high level of suspicious vigilance when it comes to unsolicited communications from outsiders, but most other members of the organization do not. The best defense against deception targeted at defenders is to limit the amount of (truthful) sensitive information about the organization that is available to outsiders. This disrupts the ability of attackers to create effective indicators that support their own coherent and believable deception story. 


Deception provides cyber defenders with a key capability to control adversary behavior in order to enhance enterprise security. To achieve this, deceptions must be carefully planned and integrated with the organization’s overall concept of cyber defense. By planning each deception from an adversary perspective, employing the See, Think, Do methodology, and instrumenting the deception with measures of performance and effectiveness, defenders can ensure that their cyber deceptions succeed.

In the near future, deploying deception technology will become easier than ever as emerging commercial products promise  to simplify the creation and management of elaborate decoys spread across the network. By employing deception technologies offered by an increasing array of cybersecurity firms (see Table 3), defenders can centrally control complex networks of indicators, deceptive services, honeypots and honey nets while simultaneously integrating with security monitoring and incident response technologies. Technology alone won't create solutions, however. Cyber deception also requires cunning, careful analysis, and deliberate planning in order to realize its full potential. The principles and techniques discussed herein are a good place to start.

Free / Open Source Cyber Deception Tools – Table 3

Active Defense Harbinger Distribution (ADHD)-Based on Ubuntu LTS
-Contains numerous tools for Active Defense
-Functionality to produce “bugged” files that beacon when opened
-Contains numerous penetration testing tools
-Contains numerous social engineering tools    

HoneyDrive-Virtual appliance based on Xubuntu LTS Desktop
-Kippo SSH honeypot, plus Kippo-Graph, Kippo-Malware, Kippo2MySQL and other helpful scripts    
-Dionaea malware honeypot, plus DionaeaFR and other helpful scripts    
-Amun malware honeypot, plus helpful scripts
-Glastopf web honeypot, along with Wordpot WordPress honeypot    
-Conpot SCADA/ICS honeypot    
-Honeyd low-interaction honeypot, plus Honeyd2MySQL, Honeyd-Viz and other helpful scripts    
-LaBrea sticky honeypot, Tiny Honeypot, IIS Emulator and INetSim    
-Thug and PhoneyC honeyclients for client-side attacks analysis, along with Maltrieve malware collector    
Artillery-Provides honeypot functionality by spawning multiple open ports on a system    
-Monitors for file system changes    
-Monitors for brute force attacks    
-Can be configured to automatically block IP addresses for systems that connect    
-Integrates with threat intelligence feeds to track known malicious IP addresses automatically    
Honeybadger-Geolocates attackers based on IP address 
Kippo-SSH honeypot
-Provides shell and file system emulation- attackers can traverse a fake directory structure    
-Popular- attackers might be able to identify a Kippo instance as a honeypot    
Conpot-Industrial Control System (ICS) honeypot
-Simulates a range of ICS protocols
Dionaea    -Honeypot designed to trap and store malware samples    
-Could potentially help identify zero-day vulnerabilities    

Adam Tyra is a cybersecurity professional with expertise in security operations, security software development, and mobile device security. He is currently employed as a cybersecurity consultant. Adam served in the U.S. Army and continues to serve part-time as an Army reservist. He is an active member of the Military Cyber Professionals Association and is a former president of the San Antonio, Texas chapter.


[1] "Battle of Hastings." Wikipedia. Accessed June 2016.

[2] Sheffy, Yigal. "Overcoming Strategic Weakness: The Egyptian Deception and the Yom Kippur War." Intelligence and National Security, January 24, 2007.

[3] Holt, Thaddeus. The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War. New York: Scribner, 2004.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Joint Publication 3-15: Barriers, Obstacles, and Mine Warfare for Joint Operations. Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2011.

[7] Witlin, Lauren. "Mirror Imaging and Its Dangers." SAIS Review of International Affairs, 2008.

[8] Colgan, Bill. Allied Strafing in World War II: A Cockpit View of Air to Ground Battle. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2010.

[9] Joint Publication 3-13.4: Military Deception. Washington, D.C.: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2012.

[10] ADRP 1-02: Operational Terms and Graphics. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2015.

[11] Ibid.

[12] FM 90-2: Battlefield Deception. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1988

[13] Sockpuppet (Internet). Wikipedia. Accessed June 2016.

[14] FM 90-2: Battlefield Deception. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1988

[15] Breitenbach, Daniel. Operation Desert Deception: Operational Deception in the Ground Campaign. Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1991.

[16] Stoll, Clifford. The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy through the Maze of Computer Espionage. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

[17] FM 90-2: Battlefield Deception. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1988

[18] Townsend, Robert E. Deception and Irony: Soviet Arms and Arms Control. 2-3 ed. Vol. 14. American Intelligence Journal, 1993.

[19] Day, Dwayne. "Of Myths and Missiles: The Truth about John F. Kennedy and the Missile Gap." The Space Review.

[20] FM 90-2: Battlefield Deception. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1988

[21] Mitnick, Kevin D., and William L. Simon. Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011.