Social Engineering Testing: Why Getting Hacked Is a Security Advantage

It was one of the highest phishing rates I had ever seen: Almost 60 percent of employees clicked the malicious link. Yet the client, a chief information security officer (CISO) of a Fortune 100 company, asked a question that caught me completely off-guard.

“So what?” he said, clearly unimpressed.

As a “people hacker” for X-Force Red, IBM Security’s team of veteran hackers, I’ve performed social engineering exercises for companies around the world. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about my job and the usefulness of social engineering assessments in security audits.

Confronted with that CISO’s indifference, I tried to explain exactly how serious our findings were and what the consequences might mean for the business.

During this assessment, my team started off by getting several payloads through the company’s email filters undetected. We identified that only two of the 300 employees reported the phishing email. The incident response (IR) team didn’t start its investigation until two days later; during those two days, we managed to infiltrate some of the legal team’s email accounts, where we discovered that the company was the target of a lawsuit that wasn’t yet public. If that lawsuit were to leak, it could significantly hurt the company’s reputation.

Additionally, by reusing some of the passwords we had compromised, we were able to log in to multiple employee payroll accounts, where we had access to direct deposit information — again, undetected. A criminal attacker could have changed direct deposit account numbers to siphon funds from employee paychecks.

My answer seemed to surprise the CISO and his team. In the end, they acknowledged that I provided a lot more information about their security posture than they expected to receive from the assessment.

Learn more in the on-demand webinar

Components of a Quality Social Engineering Assessment

If you ask someone to define a social engineering assessment, they would most likely say it tests the human aspect of security. However, if done correctly, it evaluates much more than that. Yes, assessments track how many times employees click a link, open an attachment or divulge sensitive information to a suspicious recipient on the phone. However, they can also assess if and how employees are reporting suspicious activity, and the effectiveness of IR and security awareness training programs.

With a well-designed assessment, the client should have a better understanding of how their IR team handles social engineering attacks. Many components of IR programs can be analyzed by answering questions such as:

  • How much time did it take for the IR team to respond to the social engineering activity?
  • Did the IR team follow any playbooks?
  • Did the team determine which employees knowingly or unknowingly divulged credentials, and did they issue password resets for those users?
  • If employees provided their credentials, did the IR team investigate whether those credentials were being used elsewhere as part of a suspicious activity?

In this type of engagement we test more than just people and processes; we can assess the effectiveness of security technologies too. Many of the actions performed — such as emailing a malicious payload, having an employee open a malicious USB device on their workstation, etc. — attempt to bypass different types of technologies in places such as email filters, intrusion detection systems (IDSs), antivirus software and more. Social engineering attack vectors test deployed technology to determine whether the social engineer can bypass them.

Effectiveness and Ethics of Social Engineering

Some critics have argued that social engineering assessments are pointless, as they know employees will always fail against such an attack. But these assessments provide valuable metrics, which are important to track over time to identify how employees are performing and identify any major deviations. Often, individual employees fall victim repeatedly. It’s important to identify these users so they can receive additional training, and the company should ensure those accounts have limited access.

Others have pointed to social engineering tests that went too far, such as targeting employees’ personal accounts. Each social engineering consultancy tests differently. That’s why it’s important for security leaders to define what’s acceptable for the company, so that testers don’t cross any ethical lines. This conversation between security leaders and testers typically happens during the scoping process.

Here’s another common refrain: “We already have a security awareness training program in place, and it covers social engineering.” But how do you know the program is effective? Without properly testing it, there is no way to determine whether it could efficiently and successfully contain an attack. Plus, employees should have continuous opportunities to identify social engineering activities. It is not a one-and-done exercise. Social engineering exercises are the most realistic training employees can get outside of an actual attack.

How a Box of Doughnuts Can Breach Your Defenses

Some of the social engineering assessments performed by X-Force Red include physical tests, such as walking into a building carrying a box of doughnuts to get past security, and remote tests, such as impersonating an auditor to trick employees into divulging sensitive corporate data over the phone. For each test, only a limited amount of company insiders know we are coming, and we scope the project ahead of time to ensure it is effective and ethical.

I can’t give away all our tricks of the trade, but you can hear five X-Force Red hackers, including me, share our greatest hits and best practices on this one-hour webinar, viewable on-demand. You may be surprised by some of the many ruses that get us through the door.

Watch the webinar on-demand

Contributor'photo

Stephanie Carruthers

People Hacker for IBM– X-Force Red

Stephanie "Snow" Carruthers is a People Hacker for X-Force Red, an autonomous team of veteran hackers within IBM...