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Thwarting hackers with "honey"

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 29, 2014 10:41 AM

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Over the last year hackers have made a number of high-profile data grabs: 150 million usernames and passwords from Adobe, 40 million and 1.1 million debit and credit card numbers from Target and Neiman Marcus respectively. The scale and frequency of these thefts make it seem like there’s little we can do to stop determined hackers from walking off with our personal data. But an article today in the MIT Technology review explains a new and potentially more effective kind of digital security: Rather than trying to block hackers, maybe it’s better to distract them.

The approach is built into a new piece of software called Honey Encryption, created by Ari Juels and Thomas Ristenpart, and it works on a simple model. After hackers steal a trove of encrypted data, they hunker down to crack the code. It can take them thousands of tries before they’re able to guess the right cryptographic key, and Honey Encyyption makes them pay for each failed attempt. Each time hackers enter the wrong password, Honey Encryption adds a piece of fake data to the dataset—by the time hackers finally get access to the data, it’s swimming with so many fake credit card numbers, for example, they’ll have no idea which ones are real.

The main limit of Honey Encryption is that it doesn’t work for all situations, because with some kinds of data, it’s hard to generate entries that are believably fake. Or, as Hristo Bojiov, a tech CEO, told the MIT Technology Review, “Not all authentication or encryption systems yield themselves to being ‘honeyed.’”

Still, Honey Encryption embodies a fun strategy, one that’s familiar to parents of young children: You can spend all day telling them not to touch the dog bowl, or you can get them interested in something else.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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