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Social engineering (security)

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Definition of Social Engineering in Layman's Terms
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In the context of information security, social engineering is the psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. A type of confidence trick for the purpose of information gathering, fraud, or system access, it differs from a traditional "con" in the sense that it is often one of the many steps in a more complex fraud scheme.[1] It has also been defined as "any act that influences a person to take an action that may or may not be in their best interests."[2]

Research done in 2020 has indicated that social engineering will be one of the most prominent challenges of the upcoming decade. Having proficiency in social engineering will be increasingly important for organizations and countries, due to the impact on geopolitics as well. Social engineering raises the question of whether our decisions will be accurately informed if our primary information is engineered and biased.[3]

Social engineering attacks have been increasing in intensity and number, cementing the need for novel detection techniques and cyber security educational programs.[4]

Techniques and terms[edit]

All social engineering techniques are based on attributes of human decision-making known as cognitive biases.[5][6]

One example of social engineering is an individual who walks into a building and posts an official-looking announcement to the company bulletin that says the number for the help desk has changed. So, when employees call for help the individual asks them for their passwords and IDs thereby gaining the ability to access the company's private information. Another example of social engineering would be that the hacker contacts the target on a social networking site and starts a conversation with the target. Gradually the hacker gains the trust of the target and then uses that trust to get access to sensitive information like password or bank account details.[7]


Pretexting (adj. pretextual), also known in the UK as blagging,[8] is the act of creating and using an invented scenario (the pretext) to engage a targeted victim in a manner that increases the chance the victim will divulge information or perform actions that would be unlikely in ordinary circumstances.[9] An elaborate lie, it most often involves some prior research or setup and the use of this information for impersonation (e.g., date of birth, Social Security number, last bill amount) to establish legitimacy in the mind of the target.[10]

Water holing[edit]

Water holing is a targeted social engineering strategy that capitalizes on the trust users have in websites they regularly visit. The victim feels safe to do things they would not do in a different situation. A wary person might, for example, purposefully avoid clicking a link in an unsolicited email, but the same person would not hesitate to follow a link on a website they often visit. So, the attacker prepares a trap for the unwary prey at a favored watering hole. This strategy has been successfully used to gain access to some (supposedly) very secure systems.[11]


Baiting is like the real-world Trojan horse that uses physical media and relies on the curiosity or greed of the victim.[12] In this attack, attackers leave malware-infected floppy disks, CD-ROMs, or USB flash drives in locations people will find them (bathrooms, elevators, sidewalks, parking lots, etc.), give them legitimate and curiosity-piquing labels, and wait for victims.

Unless computer controls block infections, insertion compromises PCs "auto-running" media. Hostile devices can also be used.[13] For instance, a "lucky winner" is sent a free digital audio player compromising any computer it is plugged to. A "road apple" (the colloquial term for horse manure, suggesting the device's undesirable nature) is any removable media with malicious software left in opportunistic or conspicuous places. It may be a CD, DVD, or USB flash drive, among other media. Curious people take it and plug it into a computer, infecting the host and any attached networks. Again, hackers may give them enticing labels, such as "Employee Salaries" or "Confidential".[14]

One study published in 2016 had researchers drop 297 USB drives around the campus of the University of Illinois. The drives contained files on them that linked to webpages owned by the researchers. The researchers were able to see how many of the drives had files on them opened, but not how many were inserted into a computer without having a file opened. Of the 297 drives that were dropped, 290 (98%) of them were picked up and 135 (45%) of them "called home".[15]


In common law, pretexting is an invasion of privacy tort of appropriation.[16]

Pretexting of telephone records[edit]

In December 2006, United States Congress approved a Senate sponsored bill making the pretexting of telephone records a federal felony with fines of up to $250,000 and ten years in prison for individuals (or fines of up to $500,000 for companies). It was signed by President George W. Bush on 12 January 2007.[17]

Federal legislation[edit]

The 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (GLBA) is a U.S. Federal law that specifically addresses pretexting of banking records as an illegal act punishable under federal statutes. When a business entity such as a private investigator, SIU insurance investigator, or an adjuster conducts any type of deception, it falls under the authority of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This federal agency has the obligation and authority to ensure that consumers are not subjected to any unfair or deceptive business practices. US Federal Trade Commission Act, Section 5 of the FTCA states, in part: "Whenever the Commission shall have reason to believe that any such person, partnership, or corporation has been or is using any unfair method of competition or unfair or deceptive act or practice in or affecting commerce, and if it shall appear to the Commission that a proceeding by it in respect thereof would be to the interest of the public, it shall issue and serve upon such person, partnership, or corporation a complaint stating its charges in that respect."

The statute states that when someone obtains any personal, non-public information from a financial institution or the consumer, their action is subject to the statute. It relates to the consumer's relationship with the financial institution. For example, a pretexter using false pretenses either to get a consumer's address from the consumer's bank, or to get a consumer to disclose the name of their bank, would be covered. The determining principle is that pretexting only occurs when information is obtained through false pretenses.

While the sale of cell telephone records has gained significant media attention, and telecommunications records are the focus of the two bills currently before the United States Senate, many other types of private records are being bought and sold in the public market. Alongside many advertisements for cell phone records, wireline records and the records associated with calling cards are advertised. As individuals shift to VoIP telephones, it is safe to assume that those records will be offered for sale as well. Currently, it is legal to sell telephone records, but illegal to obtain them.[18]

1st Source Information Specialists[edit]

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Kalamazoo, Michigan), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, expressed concern over the easy access to personal mobile phone records on the Internet during a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing on "Phone Records For Sale: Why Aren't Phone Records Safe From Pretexting?" Illinois became the first state to sue an online records broker when Attorney General Lisa Madigan sued 1st Source Information Specialists, Inc. A spokeswoman for Madigan's office said. The Florida-based company operates several Web sites that sell mobile telephone records, according to a copy of the suit. The attorneys general of Florida and Missouri quickly followed Madigan's lead, filing suits respectively, against 1st Source Information Specialists and, in Missouri's case, one other records broker – First Data Solutions, Inc.

Several wireless providers, including T-Mobile, Verizon, and Cingular filed earlier lawsuits against records brokers, with Cingular winning an injunction against First Data Solutions and 1st Source Information Specialists. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) introduced legislation in February 2006 aimed at curbing the practice. The Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act of 2006 would create felony criminal penalties for stealing and selling the records of mobile phone, landline, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) subscribers.

Hewlett Packard[edit]

Patricia Dunn, former chairwoman of Hewlett Packard, reported that the HP board hired a private investigation company to delve into who was responsible for leaks within the board. Dunn acknowledged that the company used the practice of pretexting to solicit the telephone records of board members and journalists. Chairman Dunn later apologized for this act and offered to step down from the board if it was desired by board members.[19] Unlike Federal law, California law specifically forbids such pretexting. The four felony charges brought on Dunn were dismissed.[20]

Notable social engineering incidents[edit]

Equifax breach help websites[edit]

Following the 2017 Equifax data breach in which over 150 million private records were leaked (including Social Security numbers, and drivers license numbers, birthdates, etc.), warnings were sent out regarding the dangers of impending security risks.[21] In the day after the establishment of a legitimate help website (equifaxsecurity2017.com) dedicated to people potentially victimized by the breach, 194 malicious domains were reserved from small variations on the URL, capitalizing on the likelihood of people mistyping.[22][23]

Notable social engineers[edit]

Susan Headley[edit]

Susan Headley became involved in phreaking with Kevin Mitnick and Lewis de Payne in Los Angeles, but later framed them for erasing the system files at US Leasing after a falling out, leading to Mitnick's first conviction. She retired to professional poker.[24]

Mike Ridpath[edit]

Mike Ridpath is a security consultant, published author, speaker and previous member of w00w00. He is well known for developing techniques and tactics for social engineering through cold calling. He became well known for live demonstrations as well as playing recorded calls after talks where he explained his thought process on what he was doing to get passwords through the phone.[25][26][27][28][29] As a child, Ridpath was connected with Badir Brothers and was widely known within the phreaking and hacking community for his articles with popular underground ezines, such as, Phrack, B4B0 and 9x on modifying Oki 900s, blueboxing, satellite hacking and RCMAC.[30][31]

Badir Brothers[edit]

Brothers Ramy, Muzher, and Shadde Badir—all of whom were blind from birth—managed to set up an extensive phone and computer fraud scheme in Israel in the 1990s using social engineering, voice impersonation, and Braille-display computers.[32][33]

Christopher J. Hadnagy[edit]

Christopher J. Hadnagy is an American social engineer and information technology security consultant. He is best known as an author of 4 books on social engineering and cyber security[34][35][36][37] and founder of Innocent Lives Foundation, an organization that helps tracking and identifying child trafficking by seeking the assistance of information security specialists, using data from open-source intelligence (OSINT) and collaborating with law enforcement.[38][39]


  1. ^ Anderson, Ross J. (2008). Security engineering: a guide to building dependable distributed systems (2 ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Wiley. p. 1040. ISBN 978-0-470-06852-6. Chapter 2, page 17
  2. ^ "Social Engineering Defined". Security Through Education. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
  3. ^ Guitton, Matthieu J. (1 June 2020). "Cybersecurity, social engineering, artificial intelligence, technological addictions: Societal challenges for the coming decade". Computers in Human Behavior. 107: 106307. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2020.106307. ISSN 0747-5632. S2CID 214111644.
  4. ^ Salahdine, Fatima (2019). "Social Engineering Attacks: A Survey". School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of North Dakota. 11 (4): 89.
  5. ^ Jaco, K: "CSEPS Course Workbook" (2004), unit 3, Jaco Security Publishing.
  6. ^ Kirdemir, Baris (2019). "HOSTILE INFLUENCE AND EMERGING COGNITIVE THREATS IN CYBERSPACE". Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
  7. ^ Hatfield, Joseph M (June 2019). "Virtuous human hacking: The ethics of social engineering in penetration-testing". Computers & Security. 83: 354–366. doi:10.1016/j.cose.2019.02.012. S2CID 86565713.
  8. ^ "Fundamentals of cyber security". BBC Bitesize. 19 March 2019. Archived from the original on 7 July 2024. Retrieved 7 July 2024.
  9. ^ The story of HP pretexting scandal with discussion is available at Davani, Faraz (14 August 2011). "HP Pretexting Scandal by Faraz Davani". Retrieved 15 August 2011 – via Scribd.
  10. ^ "Pretexting: Your Personal Information Revealed", Federal Trade Commission
  11. ^ "Chinese Espionage Campaign Compromises Forbes.com to Target US Defense, Financial Services Companies in Watering Hole Style Attack". invincea.com. 10 February 2015. Retrieved 23 February 2017.
  12. ^ "Social Engineering, the USB Way". Light Reading Inc. 7 June 2006. Archived from the original on 13 July 2006. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  13. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 October 2007. Retrieved 2 March 2012.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^ Conklin, Wm. Arthur; White, Greg; Cothren, Chuck; Davis, Roger; Williams, Dwayne (2015). Principles of Computer Security, Fourth Edition (Official Comptia Guide). New York: McGraw-Hill Education. pp. 193–194. ISBN 978-0071835978.
  15. ^ Raywood, Dan (4 August 2016). "#BHUSA Dropped USB Experiment Detailed". info security. Retrieved 28 July 2017.
  16. ^ Restatement 2d of Torts § 652C.
  17. ^ "Congress outlaws pretexting". 109th Congress (2005–2006) H.R.4709 – Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006. 2007.
  18. ^ Mitnick, K (2002): "The Art of Deception", p. 103 Wiley Publishing Ltd: Indianapolis, Indiana; United States of America. ISBN 0-471-23712-4
  19. ^ HP chairman: Use of pretexting 'embarrassing' Stephen Shankland, 8 September 2006 1:08 PM PDT CNET News.com
  20. ^ "Calif. court drops charges against Dunn". CNET. 14 March 2007. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  21. ^ "Credit reporting firm Equifax says data breach could potentially affect 143 million US consumers". CNBC. 7 September 2018. Retrieved 3 May 2024.
  22. ^ "Straight Talk: Beware scams related to Equifax data breach". Archived from the original on 6 December 2020.
  23. ^ "Phishing". Security Through Education. Social-Engineer.
  24. ^ Hafner, Katie (August 1995). "Kevin Mitnick, unplugged". Esquire. 124 (2): 80(9).
  25. ^ Social Engineering: Manipulating the human. Scorpio Net Security Services. 16 May 2013. ISBN 9789351261827. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  26. ^ Niekerk, Brett van. "Mobile Devices and the Military: useful Tool or Significant Threat". Proceedings of the 4th Workshop on Ict Uses in Warfare and the Safeguarding of Peace 2012 (Iwsp 2012) and Journal of Information Warfare. academia.edu. Retrieved 11 May 2013.
  27. ^ "Social Engineering: Manipulating the human". YouTube. 7 October 2011. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  28. ^ "BsidesPDX Track 1 10/07/11 02:52PM, BsidesPDX Track 1 10/07/11 02:52PM BsidesPDX on USTREAM. Conference". Ustream.tv. 7 October 2011. Archived from the original on 4 August 2012. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  29. ^ "Automated Social Engineering". BrightTALK. 29 September 2011. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  30. ^ "Social Engineering a General Approach" (PDF). Informatica Economica journal. Retrieved 11 January 2015.
  31. ^ "Cyber Crime". Hays. 7 November 2018. ISBN 9781839473036. Retrieved 11 January 2020.
  32. ^ "Wired 12.02: Three Blind Phreaks". Wired. 14 June 1999. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
  33. ^ "Social Engineering A Young Hacker's Tale" (PDF). 15 February 2013. Retrieved 13 January 2020. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  34. ^ "43 Best Social Engineering Books of All Time". BookAuthority. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  35. ^ "Bens Book of the Month Review of Social Engineering The Science of Human Hacking". RSA Conference. 31 August 2018. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  36. ^ "Book Review: Social Engineering: The Science of Human Hacking". The Ethical Hacker Network. 26 July 2018. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  37. ^ Hadnagy, Christopher; Fincher, Michele (22 January 2020). "Phishing Dark Waters: The Offensive and Defensive Sides of Malicious E-mails". ISACA. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  38. ^ "WTVR:"Protect Your Kids from Online Threats"
  39. ^ Larson, Selena (14 August 2017). "Hacker creates organization to unmask child predators". CNN. Retrieved 14 November 2019.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]