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Why Social Engineering Works

Hackers usually do some basic research to find out whom they need to use to construct a cover story

I have been to a couple of white hat security seminars over the past two weeks, one put on by Fishnet at the local SecureWorld Expo and another by Network Technology Partners. By white hat I mean people who are paid to break into their clients’ networks and demonstrate various security weaknesses. The biggest skill required? Wear a suit and smile. Sure, it is nice to have various gizmos and technical tools, but getting in the door is easy if you look nice


Social engineering, as this is called, isn’t new. Kevin Mitnick mastered this in the 1980s, although back then he was mostly trying to break into telephone switches. But what was interesting about both talks was how effective and how often these tricks were successful: some more than 85% of the time.

In both seminars, we saw how easy it was for the hacker to hang out by an employees’ entrance, or where the outdoor smokers congregate. Then they waltz right in, sit right down, and start connecting a laptop to the network within minutes. In one case, the hacker brought his own 19-inch server inside the data center and was helped by a Verizon technician to install the box on a rack. What made this funny was the hacker was posing as another Verizon engineer! I guess Verizon is a big company: you can’t expect to know everybody. But that is exactly the point.

In another case, the visiting hacker was challenged and escorted back to the front desk. But that was rare. Most people accepted that a stranger sitting in a nearby cube was just part of the scenery. In one case, the hacker had forged their badge and even put the words “Please stop me” right below their ID photo. No one bothered to look more closely.

Hackers usually do some basic research to find out whom they need to use to construct a cover story. Sometimes they hang out where employees spend their lunch hours at a nearby eatery. And LinkedIn can be a valuable tool to get names of systems that are being used, or names of IT employees that can give up this data. You don’t need much beyond a simple request: people are too trusting. Just say you are a recruiter and are looking for candidates for a six-figure job.

One of the speakers showed us an insidious tool: a necktie that has a pinhole HD video camera and can store video. Just wear the tie (see above), and then take it off and hang it on a hook with full view of the office. You can buy it for a couple hundred bucks, and then come back and download the video via a USB cable. This makes the surveillance seen in the movie “Closed Circuit” look like child’s play. There are other USB devices that can act as key loggers: who ever checks the back of their desktop PC on a regular basis?

At the SecureWorld show, the Fishnet guys set up their own rogue Wi-Fi hotspot. Within a few hours, they had more than a dozen attendees login to the thing and start typing their IDs and passwords, all dutifully captured by the device. Some of these hotspots look like power bricks – all you need to do to hide them in plain sight is to label them “property of the IT department” and most people won’t touch them. The same thing happens at Black Hat in Vegas, even though you would think that a conference full of security professionals would be more careful.

Social engineering is certainly alive and well these days, as always. The best security is to actually test these sorts of penetrations on a regular basis, and educate your employees to be less trusting. But it goes against human nature – at least here in the Midwest where folks are usually friendly by default – to challenge someone at the workplace. Still, we humans are the weakest link and all the firewalls and intrusion prevention systems can’t protect us against these simple exploits.

More Stories By David Strom

David Strom is an international authority on network and Internet technologies. He has written extensively on the topic for 20 years for a wide variety of print publications and websites, such as The New York Times,, PC Week/eWeek,, Network World, Infoworld, Computerworld, Small Business Computing, Communications Week, Windows Sources, c|net and, Web Review, Tom's Hardware, EETimes, and many others.

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