DEFINITION - In computer security, social engineering is a term that describes a non-technical kind of intrusion that relies heavily on human interaction and often involves tricking other people to break normal security procedures. A social engineer runs what used to be called a "con game". For example, a person using social engineering to break into a computer network would try to gain the confidence of someone who is authorized to access the network in order to get them to reveal information that compromises the network's security. They might call the authorized employee with some kind of urgent problem; social engineers often rely on the natural helpfulness of people as well as on their weaknesses. Appeal to vanity, appeal to authority, and old-fashioned eavesdropping are typical social engineering techniques.
Another aspect of social engineering relies on people's inability to keep up with a culture that relies heavily on information technology. Social engineers rely on the fact that people are not aware of the value of the information they possess and are careless about protecting it. Frequently, social engineers will search dumpsters for valuable information, memorize access codes by looking over someone's shoulder (shoulder surfing), or take advantage of people's natural inclination to choose passwords that are meaningful to them but can be easily guessed. Security experts propose that as our culture becomes more dependent on information, social engineering will remain the greatest threat to any security system. Prevention includes educating people about the value of information, training them to protect it, and increasing people's awareness of how social engineers operate.
The basic goals of social engineering are the same as hacking in general: to gain unauthorized access to systems or information in order to commit fraud, network intrusion, industrial espionage, identity theft, or simply to disrupt the system or network. Typical targets include telephone companies and answering services, big-name corporations and financial institutions, military and government agencies, and hospitals. The Internet boom had its share of industrial engineering attacks in start-ups as well, but attacks generally focus on larger entities.
Finding good, real-life examples of social engineering attacks is difficult. Target organizations either do not want to admit that they have been victimized (after all, to admit a fundamental security breach is not only embarrassing, it may damaging to the organization’s reputation) and/or the attack was not well documented so that nobody is really sure whether there was a social engineering attack or not.
As for why organizations are targeted through social engineering – well, it’s often an easier way to gain illicit access than are many forms of technical hacking. Even for technical people, it’s often much simpler to just pick up the phone and ask someone for his password. And most often, that’s just what a hacker will do.
Social engineering attacks take place on two levels: the physical and the psychological. First, we'll focus on the physical setting for these attacks: the workplace, the phone, your trash, and even on-line. In the workplace, the hacker can simply walk in the door, like in the movies, and pretend to be a maintenance worker or consultant who has access to the organization. Then the intruder struts through the office until he or she finds a few passwords lying around and emerges from the building with ample information to exploit the network from home later that night. Another technique to gain authentication information is to just stand there and watch an oblivious employee type in his password.
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