Social Engineering Attacks

Social Engineering


There are many definitions of Social Engineering that I have come across. All the definitions have agreed upon the following:

  • Social Engineering is the manipulation of human tendency to trust
  • Mostly a non-technical approach
  • Exploiting the weakest link in security, ‘human’

The aim of Social Engineering Attack (or assessment) is the same like hacking or security assessment, to intrude into the system and access unauthorised information. Social Engineering attacks have been successfully used to target telecom companies, military targets and government agencies. Social Engineering is one of the techniques widely used by intelligence agencies around the world to gain information from rival governments.

Social Engineering on a high level has two modes:

  1. Physical
  2. Psychological

Examples of physical mode can include gaining confidential information from trash or the printer. There have been instances where the attacker shoulder surfed to know the credit card number and PIN.

Examples psychological attacks can include convincing the helpdesk you are someone else and you need to reset the password of the user (often without proper verification process). As a part of my job I was visiting a client site and they had a very strong access system. I was having very limited access. However I managed to visit other sections (to take a shorter route to the cafeteria) by convincing other employees that I forgot my card, or my card suddenly is not working today. People were easily convinced and provided me with access.

The phases in social engineering attacks are:

  1. Research: The attacker in this phase gathers information about the victim. This information is user to target the victim
  2. Hook: In this phase the attackers engages with the victim.
  3. Play: In this phase the attacker tries to gain the trust of the victim and builds a relation to exploit the human weakness. During this phase the attacker gains information from the victim.
  4. Exit: This is an important phase as the attacker exits the scenario without letting the victim know that he was trapped.

Internet has made the job of social engineering easy. Information about people are readily available at different social media websites. Personal information about like birthday, family, friends, anniversary and important events can be harvested from sites like Facebook. Professional information are available from sites like LinkedIn. These information are often enough to impersonate the victim. The attacker can use these information to impersonate the victim and gain confidential information. Some of the probable attack scenarios are as follows:

The attacker with the information harvested online can reset the passwords of the victim. Today most of us have the same password for everything. Once you gain access to one system it’s easy to gain access to other systems, especially if the victim us using some single sign on service like the Google or Facebook logins for other websites.

The attackers can call the IT helpdesk of the organisation where the victim works and convince the support staff to reset the password of the system. Attacker can mention some events or information which will convince the support staff to believe the request the genuine.

Social Engineering in most cases is exploitation of human tendencies (weakest link in security). People fall victim to the psychological environment which the attacker creates to trap them. Some of the most common methods used to persuade people to divulge confidential information are:

  1. Impersonation
  2. Ingratiation
  3. Conformity
  4. Diffusion of responsibility
  5. Friendliness

Human based social engineering attacks can be of the following types:

  1. Piggybacking: Used to enter restricted area by convincing an authorised personal.
  2. Eavesdropping: Attacker can gain information by hearing a discussion between two people, or by reading emails and listening to telephonic conversation.
  3. Impersonation: The attacker acts like someone else to trap the victim
  4. Dumpster Driving: Valuable information can often be found on trash, printers and pieces of paper.
  5. Reverse Social Engineering: Discussed below

Reverse Social Engineering is a more advanced method. In this the attacker creates a scenario where the victim ends up asking for information to the attacker and in this process ends up providing the required information to the attacker. Typically the attacker appears to be in a position of authority to ensure the victim has to reach out to him for resolution of a problem which the attack has set up for him. Reverse social engineering requires good pre-attack research and planning, however if executed well it is more successful in attaining gaining quality information.

Often technical methods are used for social engineering attacks. Some of the methods are:

  1. Phishing: This is one of the most commonly used method where the victim is trapped and he enters confidential information into a website which looks like a legitimate website.
  2. Pop-ups: Popups are used to confuse victims to click or provide information
  3. Insider attack: Often a disgruntled employee uses this technique to gain valuable information and sabotage the organisation’s plan and growth.
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