Social Engineering



Social engineering is a nontechnical method of breaking into a system or network. It's the process of deceiving users of a system and convincing them to perform acts useful to the hacker, such as giving out information that can be used to defeat or bypass security mechanisms. Social engineering is important to understand because hackers can use it to attack the human element of a system and circumvent technical security measures. This method can be used to gather information before or during an attack.
A social engineer commonly uses the telephone or Internet to trick people into revealing sensitive information or to get them to do something that is against the security policies of the organization. By this method, social engineers exploit the natural tendency of a person to trust their word, rather than exploiting computer security holes. It's generally agreed that users are the weak link in security; this principle is what makes social engineering possible.
The following is an example of social engineering recounted by Kapil Raina, currently a security expert at VeriSign, based on an actual workplace experience with a previous employer:
One morning a few years back, a group of strangers walked into a large shipping firm and walked out with access to the firm's entire corporate network. How did they do it? By obtaining small amounts of access, bit by bit, from a number of different employees in that firm. First, they did research about the company for two days before even attempting to set foot on the premises. For example, they learned key employees' names by calling HR. Next, they pretended to lose their key to the front door, and a man let them in. Then they "lost" their identity badges when entering the third floor secured area, smiled, and a friendly employee opened the door for them.
The strangers knew the CFO was out of town, so they were able to enter his office and obtain financial data off his unlocked computer. They dug through the corporate trash, finding all kinds of useful documents. They asked a janitor for a garbage pail in which to place their contents and carried all of this data out of the building in their hands. The strangers had studied the CFO's voice, so they were able to phone, pretending to be the CFO, in a rush, desperately in need of his network password. From there, they used regular technical hacking tools to gain super-user access into the system.
In this case, the strangers were network consultants performing a security audit for the CFO without any other employees' knowledge. They were never given any privileged information from the CFO but were able to obtain all the access they wanted through social engineering.
The most dangerous part of social engineering is that companies with authentication processes, firewalls, virtual private networks, and network-monitoring software are still wide open to attacks, because social engineering doesn't assault the security measures directly. Instead, a social-engineering attack bypasses the security measures and goes after the human element in an organization.

The Art of Manipulation

Social engineering includes the acquisition of sensitive information or inappropriate access privileges by an outsider, based on the building of inappropriate trust relationships. The goal of a social engineer is to trick someone into providing valuable information or access to that information. Social engineering preys on qualities of human nature, such as the desire to be helpful, the tendency to trust people, and the fear of getting in trouble. Hackers who are able to blend in and appear to be a part of the organization are the most successful at social-engineering attacks. This ability to blend in is commonly referred to as the art of manipulation.
People are usually the weakest link in the security chain. A successful defense depends on having good policies in place and teaching employees to follow the policies. Social engineering is the hardest form of attack to defend against because a company can't protect itself with hardware or software alone.

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