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Master's Student: Social Engineering is not just a definition! Print E-mail
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Posted by Administrator   
Features We are happy to announce a new addition to the Linux Security Contributing Team: Gian G. Spicuzza. Currently a Graduate Student pursuing a Masters Degree in Computer Security (MSIA), Gian is a certified Linux/Unix administrator, the lead developer for the OSCAR-Backup System (at and has experience in a variety of CSO, Management and consulting positions.

His first topic is a quick foray into the world and psychology of Social Engineering:

All the security in the world isn't going to stop one of your employees or coworkers from giving up information. Just how easy is it?

Craig never worked for Linda's company, nor did he call from IT. Craig was an unethical hacker who just gained unauthorized access to her account.
Why? Because a phone call is simple.

Read on to see just how easy businesses can be exploited.

Social Engineering is not just a definition!

By: Gian G. Spicuzza (

In modern day, you would assume that brute force hacking coupled with some known software flaws would be the easiest way to circumvent a security system. You’d be wrong. Why waste time pounding a server when you can just pick up the phone? The oldest trick in the book still reigns supreme. Take this conversation for an example:

"Hi Linda, this is Craig with IT. We are implementing a new password system where each password must contain 10 characters, with at least one number and one capital letter. What would you like me to set yours as? ... What is your old password for confirmation? ... Great, your new password should be active later this month."

Craig never worked for Linda's company, nor did he call from IT. Craig was an unethical hacker who just gained unauthorized access to her account. Why? Because a phone call is simple. Why spend hours poking for security holes when unsuspecting employees will just give you confidential information? This person-to-person deception is known as social engineering, produced through logical human flaws classified under cognitive biases.1

It seems social engineering and even physical security have become second to digital security. Firewalls, encryption, and public keys have saturated the market and our mind--making them top priority. Without educated employees, modern digital security is useless.

Take this actual event for example:

About three years ago, I was hired as a security consultant for a medium-sized company. I looked over their software, firewalls, and servers; everything was up to date and acceptable. There were a few small problems, but overall their physical and digital security schemes were acceptable in my book. The next step was to test their employees--the psychological aspect of my report.

Two weeks later, I sent my colleague whom they have never met before to their office. He walked up to the front desk, introduced himself to the receptionist, and said he was here for a security update. He instructed the secretary for her username, password, and a key to the server room. He was polite, smiled, and had a crisp business card from my company. She complied without question, and then he proceeded to enter each subsequent cubical, retrieving the username and password for each employee who was available.

My security report for them had three main sections: digital, physical, and psychological. The latter was labeled in big red letters, "Immediate action is required to prevent compromise!" About 12 hours later, I received a phone call from the IT manger. With a stern attitude, he exclaimed that if their servers were secure, there is no way they could be compromised. I responded slowly in a calm voice, "they can, because a young man walked into your office with nothing but a mere business card, and walked out with 55 passwords and a key to your server room."

After a long conversation, it was clear that their security policy needed to be updated, and more importantly, that their employees needed training...desperately. It took over two weeks to talk with every employee, numerous phony scam emails to keep each worker on their toes, and finally, I sent my young colleague back in. This time, the receptionist called me to confirm his identity, and photocopied his driver's license.

Well done I told her, well done.

So how does all of this pertain to you and your company? Talk to your employees--educate them. Offer and even require training sessions. Send emails to your employees asking for their password and/or confidential information. If they respond, tell them that they shouldn't! Probe them and always be testing! Make sure each and every person is aware of current and past scams, social engineering tricks, and safe practices.

You can have the most secure servers and firewalls, but if your employees just hand over confidential information, you are doomed from the start.

1 CSEPS Course Workbook, unit 3

Read this full article

good exampleWritten by tom55 on 2007-11-20 09:47:40
but i think the biggest problem is that this psychology problem doesn't have a specific product to sell - yes training is a business, but new software/hardware/programs are much easier to push than how you train and hire the right people...
Security CatalystWritten by Ron W on 2007-11-26 11:14:06
(1) The link to the full article is broken. 
(2) What are your favorite resources for learning about Social Engineering? 
Mine are "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie and "The Art of Deception" by Kevin Mitnick.

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