Social Engineering - The Human Factor |
Social Engineering - The Human Factor
Author: Dinesh Shetty 
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Social Engineering
Cyber security is an increasingly serious issue for the complete world with intruders attacking large corporate organizations with the motive of getting access to restricted content. CSI Computer Crime and Security Survey report for the year 2010-2011 stated that almost half of the respondents had experienced a security incident, with 45.6% of them reporting that they had been subject of at least one targeted attack.
Merely trying to prevent infiltration on a technical level and ignoring the physical-social level, cent percent security can never be achieved. Couple of examples can be the scenes from Hackers which shows Dumpster diving in the target company's trash in order to obtain financial data from printouts and the scene from War Games where Matthew Broderick's character studied his target before attempting to crack the password of the military computer system. 'Social Engineering' is a threat that is overlooked in most of the organizations but can easily be exploited as it takes advantage of human psychology rather than the technical barricades that surrounds the complete system. Below is a classic example of this:

A person receives an e-mail on his official mailbox saying that his computer has been infected with a virus. The message provides a link and suggests that he downloads and installs the tool from the link to eliminate the virus from his computer. The person in a state of confusion clicks on the link to remove the virus from his computer but unwittingly giving a hacker an easy entrance into his corporate network.

To ensure complete security of an organization from all kinds of internal and external factors, the security consultant must have complete knowledge of the Social Engineering cycle, the techniques that can be used by an attacker and the counter-measures to reduce the likelihood of success of the attack.

In this paper we are going to take you through the various phases so as to understand what is Social Engineering, Social Engineering Lifecycle, the various Techniques used in Social Engineering attack with detailed examples and then finally conclude with the counter-measures to protect against each of the Social Engineering attack techniques.
Definition(s) of Social Engineering
The term "Social Engineering" can be defined in various ways, relating to both physical and cyber aspects of that activity. Wikipedia defines social engineering as:

"...the art of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information".

Other authors have provided the following definitions:

"An outside hacker's use of psychological tricks on legitimate users of a computer system, in order to obtain information he needs to gain access to the system".

"The practice of deceiving someone, either in person, over the phone, or using a computer, with the express intent of breaching some level of security either personal or professional".

"Social Engineering is a non-technical kind of intrusion relying heavily on human interaction which often involves tricking other people into breaking normal security procedures" the attacker uses social skills and human interaction to obtain information about an organization or their computer systems.

In reality Social Engineering can be any of these definitions depending on the circumstances that surround the attack. Social Engineering is actually a hacker?s manipulation of the natural human tendency to trust so as to get sensitive information needed to gain access to a system. Social Engineering does not require high level of technical expertise but requires the individual to have decent social skills.

Many people, for several decades have used social engineering as a method to research and collect data. These early social engineers would use the gathered information as a form of blackmail against the other organizations. Social engineering has been used to gain unauthorized access into several huge organizations. A hacker who spends several hours trying to break passwords could save a great deal of time by calling up an employee of the organization, posing as a helpdesk or IT employee, and can just asking for it.
The Social Engineering Life Cycle
Every Social Engineering attack is unique, but with a little understanding of the situations encountered, we can draft a rough cycle of all the activities that a Social Engineering project goes through leading to a successful outcome.

The below figure shows a general representation of the Social Engineering Life Cycle in four main stages:
social engineering
1. Footprinting
It is the technique of accumulating information regarding the target(s) and the surrounding environment. Footprinting can reveal the individuals related to the target with whom the attacker has to establish a relationship, so as to improve the chances of a successful attack.

The information gathering during the Footprinting phase includes but is not limited to:
  • List of employee names and phone numbers
  • Organization Chart
  • Department Information
  • Location information
Footprinting generally refers to one of the pre-attack phases; tasks performed prior to doing the actual Social Engineering attack.
Some of the tools like Creepy, SET and Maltego make Social Engineering engagements easier.
2.Establishing Trust
Once the possible targets have been listed out, the attacker then moves on to develop a relationship with the target who is usually an employee or someone working in the business so as to develop a good rapport with them.

The trust that the social engineer is gaining will later be used to unveil confidential pieces of information that could cause severe harm to the business.
3. Psychological Manipulation
In this step, the social engineer manipulates the trust that he has gained in the previous phase so as to extract as much confidential information or get sensitive operations related to the target system performed by the employee himself so as to penetrate into the system with much ease.

Once all the required sensitive information has been collected, the social engineer may move on to the next target or move towards exploiting the actual system under consideration.

4. The Exit
Now, after all the actual information has been extracted, the Social Engineer has to make a clear exit in such a way so as not to divert any kind of unnecessary suspicion to himself.
He makes sure to not leave any kind of proof of his visit that could lead a trace-back to his real identity nor link him to the unauthorized entry into the target system in the future.
The Human Behavior
Every Social Engineer targets specific behavioral traits in the victim so as to extract maximum information out of him. These behavioral traits include but are not limited to:
  • Excitement of Victory
    Mr. X gets an e-mail stating, "You have won 1 Million Dollars and to claim the winning amount, fill in the attached document and forward it to the email id: Switch off your antivirus as it may block the download due to highly encrypted Digital Signature of the documents". Out of Excitement he switches off his Antivirus and proceeds as ordered and downloads the document and opens it but finds it corrupted. Little does he know that he has just downloaded a malware on his machine which allows the email sender to gain remote access to his machine.
  • Fear of Authority
    Many people are apprehensive in the presence of someone they perceive as an authority figure, it is not that person they are apprehensive about but most likely the position and power of the person that intimidates them and makes them.
    The attackers take on roles of authority figures such as law enforcement officers or high-ranking company officials to extract sensitive organizational information from the victims.
  • Desire to be helpful
    Keith A. Rhodes, chief technologist at the U.S. General Accounting Office, which has a Congressional mandate to test the network security at 24 different government agencies and departments said in one of his interviews that, "Companies train their people to be helpful, but they rarely train them to be part of the security process. We use the social connection between people, their desire to be helpful."
    People in their desire to be helpful and to solve other peoples queries, give out a lot of information that otherwise should not be disclosed to an outsider as it could give an attacker a chance to get unauthorized access to the target system causing a possible loss.
  • Fear of Loss
    Mr. X gets an e-mail stating, "You have won 1 Million Dollars and to claim the winning amount, deposit $75,000 in Account number: XXXXXX in 10 days from receiving this e-mail, failing to which the winning amount would be declared unclaimed and there would be a nee lucky-draw to decide the next winner". Out of fear that he might lose such a good
    opportunity, he deposits the amount to the account number provided. When his future replies to the e-mail address goes unanswered for the next two months nor does the 1 Million Dollar gets deposited to his account, he understands that he has been scammed.
  • Laziness
    All of us have come across some or the other job that requires us to do only a specified set of activities and not linger around looking for better ways of doing that activity. This causes boredom to the person who performs the same task repeatedly on daily basis and over the time learns "shortcuts" to do the tasks using minimal efforts and still meeting the targets. Such individuals over a period of time become lazy and are susceptible to attackers who target such individuals as they know that they would get the required information with much ease due to the laid back attitude of these individuals towards their work.
  • Ego
    Many a times, the attacker makes the person more emotionally sure of himself/herself and thus removing the logical awareness of the security breach that is occurring.
    The result is that, the person being hacked senses no harm in providing whatever it is that the attacker is requesting. The reason that such an attack succeeds is that the attacker is a receptive audience for victims to display how much knowledge they have.
  • Insufficient knowledge
    Knowledge about the target system is one of the key factors that differentiate the attacker from other employees of the organization. Many a times, due to lack of proper training, the employees are themselves not sure if they have complete knowledge about the product and Social Engineers take advantage of such situations by creating a sense of urgency and not allowing the employee much time to think and understanding the fact that they are under attack.
The Weapons of a Social Engineer
The old-fashioned technical way of breaking into the computer systems by brute-forcing the user logins or ports have now been replaced by sophisticated methods that not only are easier, but yield better and faster results based on human psychology. These attacks can help the attacker get access to any system irrespective of the platform, software or hardware involved.

How exactly goes a person to carry out Social Engineering attack? The figure below shows some of the most popular techniques used to perform a Social Engineering attack:
social engineering
  • Shoulder Surfing
    Shoulder surfing is a security attack where-in, the attacker uses observational techniques, such as looking over someone's shoulder, to get information while they are performing some action that involves explicit usage of sensitive, visible information. This can be performed at a close range as well as at a long range using binoculars or other vision-enhancing devices.
  • Dumpster Diving
    Many a times, huge organizations dump items like company phone books, system manuals, organizational charts, company policy manuals, calendars of meetings, events and vacations, printouts of sensitive data or login names and passwords, printouts of source code, disks and tapes, company letterhead and memo forms, and outdated hardware carelessly into the company dumpsters. The attacker can use these items to get a huge amount of information about the company organization and network structure.
    This method of searching through the dumpster, looking for potentially useful information discarded by a company?s employees is known as Dumpster Diving.
  • Role playing
    It is one of the key weapons for a Social Engineer. It involves persuading or gathering information through the use of an online chat session, emails, phone or any other method that your company uses to interact online with the public, pretending to be a helpdesk, employee, technician, helpless or an important user to divulge in confidential information.
  • Trojan horses
    It is one of the most predominant methods currently used by hackers that involve tricking the victims to download a malicious file to the system, which on execution creates a backdoor in the machine that can be used by the attacker any time in the future and thus having complete access of the victim?s machine.
  • Phishing
    It is the act of creating and using Websites and e-mails designed to look like those of well-known legitimate businesses, financial institutions and government agencies to deceive Internet users into disclosing their personal information and falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft.
  • Surfing Organization Websites & Online forums
    Huge amount of information regarding the organization structure, email ids, phone numbers are available openly on the company website and other forums. This information can be used by the attacker to refine his approach and create a plan on whom to target and the method to be used.
  • Reverse Social Engineering
    A reverse social engineering attack is an attack in which an attacker convinces the target that he has a problem or might have a certain problem in the future and that the attacker, is ready to help solve the problem. Reverse social engineering involves three parts:
    • Sabotage: After the attacker gains a simple access to the system, he corrupts the system or gives it an appearance of being corrupted. When the user sees the system in the corrupted state, he starts looking for help so as to solve the problem.
    • Marketing: In order to make sure that the user approaches the attacker with the problem, the attacker advertises himself as the only person who can solve the problem.
    • Support: In this step, he gains the trust of the target and obtains access to sensitive information.
Defense against Social Engineering
There is no effective way to protect against a Social Engineering attack because no matter what controls are implemented, there is always that human factor which influences the behavior of an individual.
But, there are certain ways to reduce the likelihood of success of the attack. It is also important for organizations to establish a clear and strong security policy and processes to reduce the threat of social engineering.

The following are some of the steps to ensure protection against Social Engineering attack:
  • Security Awareness Trainings
    Security Awareness is the simplest solution to prevent Social Engineering attacks. Every person in the organization must be given basic security awareness training on timely basis that he/she should never give out any information without the appropriate authorization and that he/she should report any suspicious behavior.
  •  Background Verification
    There is many a chance that attacker may join the company as an employee so as to gather insider information about the company. This makes background screening a really important part of company policies to counter Social Engineering attack. It should not only be limited to internal employees but must also be extended to vendors and other contractual workers too before they become the part of the organization or are given access to the organization network.
  • Physical security
    There should be proper access control mechanism in place to make sure that only authorized people are allowed access to restricted sections of the organization. There should be no tail-tagging.
  •  Limited data leakage
    There should be constant monitoring as to what all information about the organization is floating on the World Wide Web. Any kind of irregularity should be immediately taken care of. This will make passive information gathering difficult for the attacker.
  •  Mock Social Engineering drills
    Special Social Engineering activities should be performed on the internal employees of the organization by either the security team or by the vendor so as to keep track of the security awareness levels in the organization.
  •  Data Classification policy
    There should be proper classification of data on the basis of their criticality levels and the access personnel. Data classification assigns a level of sensitivity to company information. Each level of data classification includes different rules for viewing, editing and sharing of the data. It helps to deter social engineering by providing employees a mechanism for understanding what information can be disclosed and what cannot be shared without proper authorization.
Some of the other controls that should be taken care of, to reduce the success of a Social Engineering attack are listed below:
  • Install and maintain firewalls, anti-virus, anti-spyware software's, and email filters.
  • Never allow people to tailgate with you.
  • There should be a proper Incident response strategy set for the organization.
  • Usage of corporate ID's on public domain, blogs, discussion forums etc should be restricted.
  • Pay attention to the URL of a web site. Though malicious web sites generally look identical to a legitimate site, but the URL may use a variation in spelling or a different domain.
  • Confidential and critical online details like corporate mail box should not be accessed in public places, cafes, and hotels etc. where Internet security cannot be trusted.
  • Don't send sensitive information over the Internet before checking a web sites security.
  • Don't reveal personal or financial information in email, and do not respond to email solicitations requesting this information.
  • Ensure all physical entry and exit points are secured at all times.
  • Do not provide personal information or information about your organization to anyone unless you are certain of the person's authority to have that information.
  • Use virtual keyboard where applicable.
  • Be very careful what is provided on your company web site. Avoid posting organizational charts or lists of key people wherever possible.
  • Make sure to shred any document that is discarded that may contain sensitive data.
Through this article we can understand that, however secure your application is, it is always vulnerable to one thing "The Human Factor". This human factor is the weakest link in security which can be patched not by one time training but only by an ongoing process of improvement.

Many times it's rather the interaction between the data and the person has to be secured rather than the interaction between data and server.
See Also