Three Reasons Social Engineering Still Threatens Companies

When we think of social engineering, our mind’s eye takes us to the vision of the flimflam man or snake oil salesman talking fast and smooth. The con artist’s sole goal is to separate you from your money. If you are lucky, it is for a product of some dubious quality. In the context of information or data protection, the goal is very similar: The individual on the other end of the engagement is attempting to convince you to engage in a specific action.

These unscrupulous individuals may be behind phishing emails, pretext calling and emergency queries, all of which are designed to appear normal and intend for you to take action, such as clicking a link, answering a question or providing access. Technology is just one part of the equation, and your employees can unravel technology with an answer, a click or an action. The following are three reasons why social engineering remains a threat to all companies:

1. We Are Helpful by Nature

One of the most successful social engineering techniques is the request for help, whether it’s on the phone or in person. The individual engaging your employee may be posing as an employee, customer, vendor or member of the media. They are projecting a need for assistance, always with a bit of urgency thrown in, and never with the deleterious effect your employee’s assistance may have on the company.

For instance, someone could simply pose as a senior vice president, call the company switchboard or a random employee and spin the following tale of woe:

“My laptop crashed, and I am operating off my tablet, which isn’t configured for the corporate VPN. So, I can’t get to my corporate email, but I need to reach out to my team. Would you be so kind as to forward the employee director to my personal email? I need to reach out to them now, as my meeting with the client is in one hour.”

Would your employees deflect? Have you prepared them for the false escalation that accompanies a denial, such as demands for their name or their supervisor’s name and their contact information to ensure the employee is punished?

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Similarly, imagine a man has shown up at the side door of one of your company buildings. He is wearing company logo wear and, to the casual observer, appears to be an employee heading into the office via the side entrance. He is wearing an ID that is either real or looks real. What he doesn’t have is the building’s PIN codes or an ID with a valid near-field communication capability to get through the card swipe. He adjusts his pace or otherwise loiters so he may enter behind an employee with legitimate access. Once inside, he wanders around and collects laptops, smart cards, hard drives and papers.

How would your employees address someone following them through the door? Would they hold the door open and demand that they swipe their badge or enter their PIN code, or would they hold the door and go about their business?

2. We Are Curious Beings

We have all been encouraged to be curious since even before we exited diapers. We are supposed to ask questions, try exotic foods, read new things and stay abreast of the news. The social engineering professionals attempting to set the technological hook into your company-issued devices and, by extension, the network are crafting their emails and social networking posts to entice your employees to click. They use news on natural disasters, epidemics, economic concerns, elections, holidays or the absurd, all designed to pique your employees’ curiosity so they will take action. How would you implement a no-click policy?

3. We Are Efficient Multitaskers

Who among your staff isn’t efficient at multitasking? In this always-on world of virtual meetings and engagement, your employees may be talking on the phone and scanning their inbox at the same time. Social engineering adversaries are counting on this when they begin to conduct surveillance prior to mounting an attack. Multiple innocuous queries can be made across the enterprise via pretext calls about bring-your-own-device policies or accessing social networks via company networks. In every instance, the information gleaned allows for the creation of a package that appears to be normal and within policy to the recipient.

What Should You Do to Combat Social Engineering?

If you are using a data loss prevention system, you already know you have to invest both time and energy to implement a data classification regime, which assists in tuning out the noise or false positives. Similarly, you must ensure the adherence to the philosophy of least-privileged access (i.e., need to know). It is also important to include a robust security information and event management process to ensure knowledge of attempts to access information and successful out-of-pattern access to information. These foundational elements need to be coupled with a comprehensive security awareness program that is provided continuously. You can’t stop adversaries from targeting your company or employees, but you can be prepared for their arrival.

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Christopher Burgess

CEO at Prevendra

Christopher Burgess is the CEO of Prevendra, a security, privacy and intelligence company. He is also an author, speaker and advocate for effective security strategies, be they for your company, home or family. Christopher co-authored "Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost: Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century" (Syngress, March 2008) and authored the e-book, "Senior Online Safety" (Prevendra, March 2014) and is the voice behind the website, "Senior Online Safety." Prior to the founding of Prevendra, Christopher held a variety of private and public sector positions, which included, chief operating office and chief security officer of a big data analytic company, Atigeo; Senior Security Advisor to the CSO of Cisco, a Fortune 100, and 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher resides in Woodinville, WA with his family, two dogs and two horses.