What is Social Engineering?

Publication date: May 28, 2020

Last Published: Jul 30, 2020

Table of Contents
Read Time : 6 minutes

Cybersecurity experts like to say that humans are the weakest link of an organization’s security. Why? Because more than 99 percent of threats observed wouldn’t cause any damage if it wasn’t for users unwittingly enabling them after being tricked by cybercriminals to disclose sensitive information or perform a certain action.

The art of exploiting human psychology using a variety of tactics in the context of information security is called social engineering, and its impact on organizations across all sectors continues to grow. Learning to recognize and mitigate social engineering attacks should be every organization’s priority because the alternative can be disastrous.

Defining Social Engineering

Social engineering can be defined as a non-technical cyber attack that relies on the psychological manipulation of users to trick them into revealing confidential information or performing a certain action.

Unlike technical cyber attacks, social engineering doesn’t require in-depth knowledge of coding, networking, and system architecture from both a hardware and software perspective. When successfully executed, a social engineering attack may enable the attacker to skip sophisticated cyber defenses and leave the scene of the crime unnoticed.

Because social engineering requires the attacker to make direct contact with their target, it requires a certain degree of audacity and nerve. That said, most social engineering attacks never result in face-to-face contact between the attacker and its victim.

Here are five common social engineering attacks listed in the order of their directness:

  • Email phishing: Representing 77 percent of social engineering attacks, email phishing is the fraudulent attempt to obtain sensitive information or certain response by sending spoofed emails that appear to be written by someone trustworthy.
  • Spear phishing: In a way, spear phishing is a more sophisticated version of regular phishing because it targets only a single person or a small group of people with email messages that have been meticulously crafted to be as convincing as possible, often including information from LinkedIn and other social networks.
  • Vishing: Also known as voice phishing, this social engineering attack takes a more direct approach compared with email phishing, but its objective is the same.  
  • Tailgating: This physical social engineering attack happens when an attacker follows an authorized employee into a secured building or some other location, taking advantage of the employee’s willingness to hold the door for them without questioning whether they’re allowed to be there.
  • Direct approach: The boldest social engineers are, for example, not afraid to put on a fake uniform and simply announce themselves as technicians who have come to perform a scheduled repair.

As you can see, social engineering can take many different forms, and they all pose serious security risks to all organizations that don’t know how to defend themselves against them.

The Risks and Threats of Social Engineering

Social engineering is usually a means to an end—not an end in itself. Typically, it’s the first stage of a complex cyber attack whose objective is to:

  • Steal sensitive data, either via a persistent remote connection or single data breach.
  • Infect the organization with dangerous malware, such as ransomware.
  • Gain control over the entire network and use the devices connected to it as bots.

According to data from FBI, social engineering attacks cost organizations an average of $130,000, but damages can climb into the millions of dollars because they don’t include only direct financial loss but also the cost of recovery, lost productivity, business disruption, and reputation damage.

In 2016, Information Security Media Group conducted a social engineering survey and discovered that 60 percent of organizations had been victims of a social engineering attack in the previous year. What’s even more alarming, 69 percent of respondents said the volume of attacks had increased in the previous year

The growth of social engineering attacks can be attributed to the advent of social networking, which has made it easy for cybercriminals to discover valuable information that can be leveraged through social engineering. Unless properly addressed, the threat of social engineering will continue to intensify.

How to Prevent Social Engineering

Preventing social engineering is challenging because it requires organizations to address the most unpredictable and difficult to control element of their cybersecurity defenses: their employees. Of course, it’s important to have sound security policies and guidelines in place, but getting employees to follow them when facing a particularly skilled and convincing social engineer is the difficult part.

To prevent social engineering, organizations should consider the following:

  • Employee education: It’s important to teach employees to recognize phishing and other social engineering attacks as they happen. This can be done with a combination of PowerPoint-style presentations and hands-on exercises that simulate real social engineering techniques.
  • Secure architecture: While it’s true that even the most secure system can be compromised due to human error or ignorance, it’s always much easier to protect a system that’s built from the group up with security in mind.
  • Spam protection: Because most social engineering attacks are delivered via email, it’s paramount to block spam messages from making it into employees’ inboxes using an effective spam filter.
  • Anti-malware software: As we’ve already explained, one common goal of social engineering is to distribute malware. A reliable anti-malware software can block malicious attachments and links, saving the organization from its employees’ mistakes.
  • Multifactor authentication: Social engineering attacks rely heavily on obtaining access credentials to privileged network resources. Adding at least one more authentication method, such as a fingerprint scan or authentication token, can stop attackers dead in their tracks.

By addressing social engineering at multiple levels, organizations can greatly decrease the chance of a skilled social engineer breaching their defenses by psychologically manipulating employees and tricking them into unwittingly helping with the execution of cyber attacks.

Conclusion

Social engineering is a serious threat to organizations of all sizes and types. It can open the potential for a costly data breach or devastating ransomware infection. To protect themselves against social engineering attacks, organizations must adopt a multipronged security strategy encompassing security policies and guidelines, employee education, and reliable cybersecurity tools.

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