Cybersecurity Deception Engineers: The Unseen Guardians of Cybersecurity Programs and the Unsung Heroes in the Battle Against Cyber Threats

“Cybersecurity Deception Engineers, the unseen guardians of cybersecurity, craft a deceptive digital landscape. They turn potential vulnerabilities into traps, thwarting threats and illuminating the intentions of cyber adversaries.” – Kevin Lynn McLaughlin, PhD 

In the unending expanse of the digital universe, cybersecurity has risen as an indispensable shield. With each step deeper into the digital era, it becomes clear that the teams entrusted with our cybersecurity must be perpetually ready to evolve, improve, and meet head-on the never-ending surge of cyber threats. “Deception tools and technologies are the best solution to the problem. Deception tools work in real time to detect and defend unwanted actions from human attackers that attempt to steal critical information from the system. “ (Yarali & Sahawneh, 2019) Nestled within cybersecurity teams, a role of paramount importance needs to be considered – the Cybersecurity Deception Engineer. While the role of deception is not new in the vast and ever-evolving world of cybersecurity, the role of a Cybersecurity Deception Engineer is an evolving and fascinating combination of artistry and technical ability. These highly skilled professionals own the ability to mislead and confuse adversaries by transforming the cyber battleground into a captivating maze filled with traps and false information. Their dedicated efforts aim to not only bewilder intruders but also uncover their strategies, techniques, and motivations. The importance of Deception Engineers in strengthening cybersecurity programs cannot be overstated. 

Deception Engineers play a critical role in fortifying cybersecurity defenses by introducing a sophisticated layer of threat detection mechanisms, effectively enhancing the robustness of existing security measures. Their work revolves around the meticulous design, development, and deployment of various deceptive measures – a suite of traps, decoys, breadcrumbs, and lures, among others. (Yarali & Sahawneh, 2019) Each of these elements is strategically placed within the system to act as a potential snare for attackers who dare to breach the security perimeter. The role of a Deception Engineer is akin to a skilled chess player, constantly predicting the moves of an adversary. A good deception engineer crafts these deceptive elements with extraordinary precision, creating a labyrinth of misleading information and false targets that are nearly indistinguishable from the actual assets. Each trap, decoy, or lure is a meticulously designed artifact, waiting to spring at the slightest provocation. When an attacker is lured into interacting with these deceptive elements, the system is triggered, exposing the presence of these intruders at an early stage. The early detection of a potential breach on corporate infrastructure or against IoT devices is a significant advantage, allowing the cybersecurity team to act swiftly to prevent any substantial damage. (Alshammari et al., 2020) However, the role of these deceptive elements goes beyond mere detection. The deceptive measures serve a dual purpose – they not only act as early warning systems but also as invaluable intelligence-gathering tools. Each interaction of the attacker with these deceptive elements generates a wealth of data – information about the attacker’s methods, tactics, and procedures, the origin of the attack, and perhaps even the attacker’s intentions. This data is then analyzed and used to enrich the organization’s threat intelligence. The information gleaned from these interactions significantly contributes to the organization’s understanding of the threat landscape. It provides an in-depth view of the attacker’s mindset and novel attack vectors that could be exploited. As deception engineers build out their deception framework in replicombs the intelligence gained is invaluable (Shortridge & Petrich, 2021), allowing the organization to stay ahead of the curve, predict potential threats, and design effective countermeasures. The work of Deception Engineers significantly bolsters the effectiveness of an organization’s cybersecurity program. By integrating an added layer of threat detection, they not only provide an early warning system but also contribute rich, actionable intelligence that fosters a proactive approach to cybersecurity 

Deception engineers leverage a plethora of tools and technologies such as moving target defense to supplement their deception frameworks and plans. “Moving target defense (MTD) is a proactive defensive mechanism proposed to disrupt and disable potential attacks, thus reversing the defender’s disadvantages. Cyber deception is a complementary technique that is often used to enhance MTD by utilizing misinformation to deceive and mislead attackers. “ (Ma et al., 2022) Other parts in a deception engineers toolkit are items such as Deception Technology platforms. These platforms are comprehensive solutions that provide an array of tools for creating decoys, false data, and deceptive responses. The decoys could range from fake servers, applications, databases, to even entire subnets, all designed to look and act like their real counterparts. Such platforms also typically include tools for deploying and managing deception tokens, the digital breadcrumbs that lure in and reveal attackers. Another critical tool in the arsenal of a Deception Engineer is the Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) system. SIEMs are used to collect, store, and analyze security data from across the network. The intelligence gathered from deception strategies can be fed into the SIEM for in-depth analysis, facilitating a better understanding of the attacker’s intentions, techniques, and targets. Furthermore, SIEMs play a crucial role in alert management, helping to distinguish between false positives and genuine threats. Deception Engineers also work closely with Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) solutions. These tools aid in automating responses to interactions with decoys or deception tokens, ensuring even minor threats are promptly addressed. The integration of deception tactics and automated responses can help in creating a highly dynamic and responsive defense mechanism that maximizes the cybersecurity team’s ability to break the kill chain before it gets to the end. Good deception Engineers also leverage Threat Intelligence Platforms. These platforms help in understanding the latest threat trends and tactics used by cybercriminals. This information is invaluable in refining and updating deception strategies to ensure they remain effective against evolving cyber threats. The tools used by Deception Engineers are diverse and multifaceted, reflecting the complexity of the task at hand. From deception technology platforms and SIEMs to SOAR solutions, traffic analysis tools, and threat intelligence platforms, each tool plays a vital role in orchestrating a successful deception strategy. The effective use of these tools allows Deception Engineers to create an ever-evolving, proactive, and resilient defense against cyber adversaries.  

A unique tool that should be highlighted is the use of deception tokens which are analogous to breadcrumbs scattered in a forest. They are digital artifacts, convincingly crafted to appear valuable, that are strewn across the network. An attacker, like a misguided wanderer, is likely to pick up these breadcrumbs. However, the act of picking up these breadcrumbs, or interacting with these tokens, triggers an alarm – revealing the presence of the intruder to the vigilant eyes of the cybersecurity team. When we talk about the necessity for Deception Engineers to fully leverage deception tokens, we’re discussing the importance of creating a convincing digital environment that lures in attackers. The more convincingly these tokens are designed, the greater the chance of them being interacted with, thus exposing the intruder. Deception tokens are not merely traps, however. They are an intelligence-gathering tool. The nature of interaction with the token, the point of entry into the network, and the behavior of the attacker following the interaction can all supply crucial information about the attacker’s intentions, techniques, and potential targets within the network. This intelligence can be used to fortify defenses, predict future attacks, and ultimately, stay one step ahead of the cyber adversaries. Moreover, deception tokens are a part of a proactive defense strategy, a shift from the traditional reactive stance that waits for an attack to happen. This proactive approach can often deter potential attackers who find the network too treacherous to navigate due to the presence of these tokens. The use of deception tokens also contributes to the overall resilience of the cybersecurity program. By creating an environment where the attacker is constantly second-guessing what is real and what is a decoy, the Deception Engineer keeps the attacker off-balance, wasting their time and resources, and creating opportunities to strengthen defenses (Ma et al., 2022). Fully leveraging deception tokens is not just about laying traps for the attackers. It’s about intelligence gathering, proactive defense, and building resilience. It’s about creating an ecosystem that is hostile to attackers, and for a Deception Engineer, it’s an essential part of their toolkit in the grand chessboard that is the cybersecurity landscape. 

The integration of Deception Engineers with other key components of the cybersecurity ecosystem is vital. Within Security Operations Centers (SOC), where frontline defenders monitor and respond to threats, the intelligence provided by Deception Engineers plays a pivotal role. Armed with correct and real-time threat intelligence, SOC analysts can prioritize and respond to threats more effectively, ensuring a swift and targeted response. Additionally, the seamless integration of Deception Engineers’ insights with Security Orchestration, Automation, and Response (SOAR) solutions automates the response to interactions with decoys. This automation streamlines the incident management process, enabling the SOC team to allocate more time and resources to tackle complex and high-priority threats. The significance of Deception Engineers extends beyond immediate threat detection and response. By creating a deceptive environment that keeps adversaries uncertain and off-balance, they contribute to the overall resilience of the cybersecurity program. Attackers waste time and resources while navigating through the deceptive landscape, allowing the defense to strengthen and adapt, ultimately minimizing the impact of cyber-attacks. Additionally, the proactive nature of deception strategies, where potential threats are deterred by the hostile network environment, represents a paradigm shift from the traditional reactive approach prevalent in cybersecurity. The role of Cybersecurity Deception Engineers is pivotal in bolstering cybersecurity programs. Their unique blend of creativity, technical ability, and integration with SOC personnel and SOAR automation enhances threat detection, incident response, and overall cyber resilience. As the cyber threat landscape continues to evolve, the incorporation of deception engineering is a strategic evolution that fortifies our defenses and ensures a more secure digital future.  SOAR solutions, designed to streamline and automate threat response, can derive immense benefit from the inputs of Deception Engineers. Automation of responses to decoy interactions is made possible, ensuring even the smallest threats are addressed, thereby liberating precious time for the SOC team to confront more complex threats. In an era where cyber-attacks are a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if,’ the ability to bounce back, or resilience, is fundamental. Cybersecurity Deception Engineers are instrumental in fostering this resilience by keeping adversaries in a perpetual state of uncertainty and imbalance. Their prowess in fabricating a deceptive cyber environment blurs the line for attackers between genuine targets and decoys, wasting their time and resources while the defense regroups and readjusts. Deception Engineers shift the organization’s position from the back foot to the front foot. By transforming the network into a hostile environment for attackers, they help ward off potential threats. This proactive posture, a deviation from the traditional reactive approach, holds immeasurable value in today’s rapidly evolving cyber threat landscape (Yarali & Sahawneh, 2019). 

In conclusion, we cannot overstate the pivotal role that Cybersecurity Deception Engineers play in the realm of cybersecurity. Their contribution to our cybersecurity programs is not just a nice-to-have but is indeed becoming an essential ingredient in our potent mix of defenses (Handa et al., 2021). By introducing a unique blend of skills, they enhance the strength of our cybersecurity protocols, marrying seamlessly with the Security Operations Center (SOC) personnel and Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR) systems. This results in a formidable, resilient defense that is much more than the sum of its parts. In this unceasingly shifting landscape of cyber threats, it’s a veritable arms race between us and the nefarious elements looking to breach our defenses. As they evolve, so must we. And it is here that the Deception Engineers truly shine. Their role is the embodiment of our adaptive spirit, a clear manifestation of our commitment to staying a step ahead. The integration of deception engineering into our cybersecurity programs is not just an incremental improvement—it is a game-changing evolution in our strategic approach. The addition of deception engineering to your cybersecurity team is a promise, a pledge to the future. It signifies determination to fortify our defenses, to guard against the insidious threats that lurk in the shadows of the digital age. And with the Deception Engineers on our cybersecurity teams, we stand ready, not just to face these cyber threats, but to outsmart them, to turn the tables on them, to use their own tactics against them. This is the promise deception engineering brings, one of hope and resilience in our ongoing quest for a secure digital future. 

Alshammari, A., Rawat, D. B., Garuba, M., Kamhoua, C. A., & Njilla, L. L. (2020). Deception for Cyber Adversaries.  

Handa, A., Negi, R., & Shukla, S. K. (2021). Part I Deception Technologies & Threat Visibility – Honeypots and Security Operations.  

Ma, D., Tang, Z., Sun, X., Guo, L., Wang, L., & Chen, K. (2022). Game Theory Approaches for Evaluating the Deception-Based Moving Target Defense Proceedings of the 9th ACM Workshop on Moving Target Defense, 

Shortridge, K., & Petrich, R. (2021). Lamboozling Attackers: A New Generation of Deception: Software Engineering Teams Can Exploit Attackers’ Human Nature by Building Deception Environments. Queue, 19(5), 26–59 , numpages = 34.  

Yarali, A., & Sahawneh, F. G. (2019). Deception: Technologies and Strategy for Cybersecurity   

About mclaukl

Professional Certifications - Certified CISO, CISM, CISSP, PMP, ITIL Master Certified, GIAC Security Leadership Certificate (GSLC), CRISC. Kevin also holds Certificates in the Advanced Principles of Information Security and in Advanced Information Security Research Methods from Jones International University. Kevin L. McLaughlin began his career as a Special Agent for the Department of Army. He was responsible for investigating Felony crimes around the globe. He has had many careers over the years, including being a Police Officer in Kissimmee Florida, an Investigator for Mastercard/Visa, a Middle School teacher, a Director at Kennedy Space Center (where he worked with Fred Hayes, James Lovell, Armstrong, Sheppard, etc.), the President of his own company, an IT Manager and Senior Information Security manager with the Procter & Gamble (P&G) company (fortune 35), a CISO at the University of Cincinnati and a Senior Information System Security Manager for the Whirlpool Corporation (fortune 125). Kevin has also been an adjunct since 1992. While at P&G Kevin created one of P&G’s augmentation outsourcing teams in India. Kevin designed and implemented this India team and it won a global Gold Service award from Atos-Origin and has acted as a model for countless corporate relationships since. Over the years Kevin has: created an Information Security program conducted Information Security Strategic planning designed Information Security solutions, investigated over 700 Cyber cases and operated a Global Security Operations Center. • Education - MS in Computer Science Education, BS in Management of Information Systems * PhD in Cyber Security, University of Fairfax
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