Social engineering

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Social Engineering is a term used in computer science that referees to a non-technical type of security attack. This attack relies on the human element in any security system and is made vulnerable by exploiting a person's trust in the attacker to divulge sensitive or insensitive information. This is often accomplished by misleading or tricking the person getting attacked. In many cases, the attacked never know that they have been attacked.

Kevin David Mitnick
Born October 6, 1963
Convicted of computer related crimes using social engineering.


What is Social Engineering?

Social Engineering is the manipulation of people to further a person's motives using various methods. “The art and science of getting people to comply to your wishes” - Bernz. This "compliance" is generally associated with the acquisition of electronic information. However, Social Engineering can also apply to a border definition which encompasses any kind personal manipulation in an attempt to gain something dishonestly. The manipulation is performed by "tricking" the mark (the unsuspecting victim) into a false sense of trust which is them abused to obtain the sought objective.

Aspects of Social Engineering

A social engineering attack can be thought of as process with two key components; human and the system. The human component requires the social engineer to gain the trust of whom ever has access to the system.


The human element in social engineering attacks is the method in which the objectives are carried out. Human beings are generally the weakest part of any security system because they can be tricked or corrupted. By attacking the people who have access to what social engineers want, the objectives of a social engineer can be obtained more easily. People like system administrator, maintenance people, or employees can all potential jeopardized a secure system by giving out information that to someone who they consider to be trustworthy.


The system refers to any potentially closed system which contains something a social engineer wants. A social engineering attack is only successful if the social engineer has knowledge about the inner workings of the system. Knowledge like protocols, terminology, names of people, important dates, etc., provide social engineers ammunition to construct a persona which is then used to manipulate the people who have access to the system.

Methods of Social Engineering

By Phone

This is the most common method of social engineering attacks. An attacker will call the mark, using a persona, and gain the mark's trust. Then the attacker will request information which then might be used to perform another social engineering attack. Help desks are prone to this kind of attack since they are trained to be friendly and give out information. They are also minimally educated in areas of security. An example of this type of attack might be the following scenario. An attacker calls a help desk and asks to speak to the supervisor. When the supervisor answers, the attacker explains that he is the system administrator and that there is a problem with the system. Then the attacker asks the supervisor to login to the system. The attacker then states that he is unable to see the login on his end and that this is a problem. Then the attacker asks the supervisor to give him the login information so that he can try. Once the supervisor has done this, the attacker tells the supervisor that everything seems to be ok and the supervisor is none the wiser.

Another example of a phone attack is when the attacker calls a person in the middle of the night posing as someone from a bank. The attacker asks if they have just made a suspicious purchase (a very large amount or in another country). When the mark says no, the attacker asks for the credit card number for verification, then says the charges will be removed from the account.

Social Engineering can take on many forms on the phone and can have many different objectives. The most notable social engineer in 1990's was Kevin Mitnick. He was arrest in 1995 and convicted of illegally gaining access to computer networks and stealing intellectual property. Mitnick's methods relied on the use of phone calls to the companies which he attacked and the use of the Mitnick Attack. Mitnick served 5 years in prison and now runs a security consulting company which gives security advice to companies.


Online social engineering attacks are similar to phone attacks, in that they pose as a legitimate entity which the mark will trust. Many online attacks are spread through phishing. This type of social engineering assumes that most users use the same login and password for many internet sites, so by getting the user to sign up for a new site, they will be giving up their login information. These sites might be in the form of new sites which the use might be interested in, or they might pose as sites which the user already has an account for and ask the user to try and login again. The latter example can take for in the following. The mark receives an email informing him that he needs to update his PayPal password by clicking the provided link and logging in. Failure to do so will result in the termination of the account after a specified period. Once the mark clicks on the link, and enters his login information, a message is displayed which confirms the change. The link the mark has clicked on, however, was a link to the attacker's site which simply records the login information.


Persuasion is the core of social engineering attacks. This method is used in all social engineering attacks and relies on the attacker's grasp of the human psyche. The attacker's ability to persuade is determined by two things. Firstly the attacker must be able to gain trust. This can be accomplished using various techniques. The most common of which are creating a persona by impersonation (such as identity theft or imitation. An attacker can pose as either an existing employee or pose as a generic employee. For example, an attacker calling an office can say that his name is Bob Anderson with employee number 123456 (where Bob Anderson is an existing employ who works at a different branch with that employee number), or he can say he's Dale Johnson, a new system administrator brought in to fix the recent system failures (where Dale Johnson is a made up name). The use of these personas provides the social engineer with the appearance of authenticity which is used to build the mark's trust. Once this authenticity is established, the attacker must then complete the persuasion by implementing the second step, manipulation. This is accomplished by providing a convincing reason to the mark to give the attacker what he wants. This can be a colourful background story, a tempting offer, or even guilt the mark into compliance. The point is to make the mark believe that the persona that is being used is legitimate and that the requests being made are genuine. If a social engineer can master these two elements then he will be very persuasive.

Dumpster Diving

Dumpster Diving, also known as trashing, is the "snooping" through trash to collect information. It is a very effective method of obtaining many different types of information. The premise is that many companies and individuals don't apply a high level of security in their garbage because they feel as though what they throw out is no longer relevant. However, much of the trash being discarded can collectively provide the social engineer with the tools needed to create personas and learn about the inner workings of the system. Trash like old user and password lists, company directories, event calendars, printouts of source code and even obsolete hardware can contain information that is relevant to the current state of the system. In particular the social engineer can learn about the company’s protocols, terminology and many employee's names and other personal information.

Reverse Social Engineering

The objective in reverse social engineering is to have the mark ask the attacker for information, rather than the other way around. The advantage of this method is that the attacker can give out information that will suit his motives. For example, an attacker can call the supervisor of an office and inform him that there is maintenance scheduled on the office network and if people have problems accessing the system that they should call the attacker. Then the attacker will create a network outage and when the employees call, he can retrieve their login information. This kind of attack requires a significant amount of preparation; however, it can yield very successful results.


To protect against social engineering attacks, a company should implement security policies which deal with both physical and psychological elements. Standard physical security mechanisms should be implemented which take into account network protection, password protection, and a system of securely disposing of trash. In addition, the policies should cover the education and training of employees to help recognize a social engineering attack. This kind of training should deal with how these attacks can happen, specific examples, and methods in which employees can authenticate who they are speaking with. It should also stress the importance of not giving out information that is not need-to-know or confidential (such as passwords). In general a good practice of information security awareness will provide employees with a more sceptical attitude in giving out information.


Bernz: “The complete Social Engineering FAQ!”

Sarah Granger : “Social Engineering Fundamentals”, SecurityFocus, December 18, 2001

“Social engineering (security)”, Wikipedia, November 19, 2007

“social engineering”, SearchSecurity, October 10, 2006,,sid14_gci531120,00.html

Mitnick, Kevin: “My first RSA Conference,” SecurityFocus, April 30, 2001

Leslie Hawthorn: “Social Engineering”, O’Reilly Network, March 10, 2006

“Social Engineering”, McGuill Network Communications Services, September 7, 2007

Shahinrs 19:25, 3 December 2007 (EST)

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