A piece of recent news made me realize how human emotions and thoughts can be (or, are) used for others’ benefit. Almost every one of you knows Edward Snowden, the whistleblower of NSA snooping the world over. Reuters reported that he got around 20-25 NSA people to hand over their passwords to him for recovering some data he leaked later . Imagine how fragile your corporate network can be, even with the strongest and best of security software!
What is Social Engineering
Human weakness, curiosity, emotions, and other characteristics have often been used in extracting data illegally – be it any industry. The IT Industry has, however, given it the name of social engineering. I define social engineering as:
“The method whereby an external person gains control over one or more employees of any organization by any means with intention to obtain the organization’s data illegally”
Here is another line from the same news story  that I want to quote – “Security agencies are having a hard time with the idea that the guy in the next cubicle may not be reliable“. I modified the statement a bit to fit it into the context here. You can read the full news piece using the link in the References section.
In other words, you do not have complete control over the security of your organizations with social engineering evolving much faster than techniques to cope with it. Social engineering can be anything like calling up someone saying you are tech support and ask them for their login credentials. You must have been receiving phishing emails about lotteries, rich people in Mid East and Africa wanting business partners, and job offers to ask you your details.
Unlike phishing attacks, social engineering is much of direct person-to-person interaction. The former (phishing) employs a bait – that is, the people “fishing” is offering you something hoping that you will fall for it. Social engineering is more about winning the confidence of internal employees so that they divulge the company details you need.
Known Social Engineering Techniques
There are many, and all of them use basic human tendencies for getting into the database of any organization. The most used (probably outdated) social engineering technique is to call and meet people and making them believe they are from technical support who need to check your computer. They can also create fake ID cards to establish confidence. In some cases, the culprits pose as state officials.
Another famous technique is to employ your person as an employee in the target organization. Now, since this con is your colleague, you might trust him with company details. The external employee might help you with something, so you feel obliged, and that is when they can make out the maximum.
I also read some reports about people using electronic gifts. A fancy USB stick delivered to you at your company address or a pen drive lying in your car can prove disasters. In a case, someone left some USB drives deliberately in the parking lot as baits .
If your company network has good security measures at each node, you are blessed. Otherwise, these nodes provide an easy passage for malware – in that gift or “forgotten” pen drives – to the central systems.
As such we cannot provide a comprehensive list of social engineering methods. It is a science at the core, combined with art on the top. And you know that neither of them has any boundaries. Social engineering guys keep on getting creative while developing software that can also misuse wireless devices gaining access to company Wi-Fi.
Prevent Social Engineering
Personally, I do not think there is any theorem that admins can use to prevent social engineering hacks. The social engineering techniques keep on changing, and hence it becomes difficult for IT admins to keep track on what is happens.
Of course, there is a need to keep a tab on social engineering news so that one is informed enough to take appropriate security measures. For example, in the case of USB devices, admins can block USB drives on individual nodes allowing them only on the server that has a better security system. Likewise, Wi-Fi would need better encryption than most of the local ISPs provide.
Training employees and conducting random tests on different employee groups can help identify weak points in the organization. It would be easy to train and caution the weaker individuals. Alertness is the best defense. The stress should be that login information should not be shared even with the team leaders – irrespective of the pressure. If a team leader needs to access a member’s login, s/he can use a master password. That is just one suggestion to stay safe and avoid social engineering hacks.
The bottom line is, apart from the malware and online hackers, the IT people need to take care of social engineering too. While identifying methods of a data breach (like writing down passwords etc.), the admins should also ensure their staff is smart enough to identify a social engineering technique to avoid it altogether. What do you think are the best methods to prevent social engineering? If you have come across any interesting case, please share with us.
Download this ebook on Social Engineering Attacks released by Microsoft and learn how you can detect and prevent such attacks in your organization.
 Reuters, Snowden Persuaded NSA Employees Into Obtaining Their Login Info
 Boing Net, Pen Drives Used to Spread Malware.