Social Engineering


Video Script

Another area of cybersecurity that we should discuss is social engineering. Social engineering is all about using techniques to compromise the system by exploiting the users directly instead of the system security itself. And this is a really important concept. There’s an old saying, in computer science that a system is only as secure as the users that use that system. It’s kind of a play off the idea of a system is only as secure as its weakest link. And in most cases, the weakest link is the user itself. And so on the next few slides, we’re going to take a look at some different ways that you can use social engineering, to maybe break into a computer system and what those things look like so that we can defend against those. So a great example of social engineering is trying to get some information from somebody that they don’t want to give. And a great example of that would be a bank account number. So if I wanted to get someone’s bank account number, how do you think I could go about that using social engineering? Take a minute to think about it. So while this example may not work that well in today’s world, because not many people carry around checkbooks. If you have a checkbook, look at your checkbook at the bottom of your checks, and see what’s printed there. Hopefully, you should realize that printed at the bottom of your checks are two numbers. One of them is the routing number that identifies your bank, and the other number is your bank account number. And so I think one of the best ways to do this was actually discovered by Gru in the movie Despicable Me selling cookies. He had his girls sell Girl Scout cookies, and as long as he said, “Oh, I can only accept checks.” A lot of people might not think twice about writing a check for a Girl Scout troop, but that check includes your bank account information. And so with a little bit more work, you could probably use that information very nefariously against the people that wrote those checks. So even though it’s something that we don’t really think about giving out very often, it’s right there out in the open if we know how to get it.

So let’s take a look at some examples of social engineering and see what those look like. First and foremost is the idea of pretexting. Pretexting is calling or going somewhere and pretending to be someone else. And you see this a lot of times done in movies where the bad guys will come in and pretend to be exterminators so that they can gain access to the back room of a bank. But you could do it just as easily by calling someone and pretending to be their insurance agent. This happens at K-State all the time. Department offices get calls asking for information, like who’s in charge?, who’s the department head?, who buys your supplies? And then they will call back later and say, Oh, yeah, so and so said that you should buy the supplies from our company. We’re just checking the follow up on the order. Even though no order was made. they now know who’s in charge, who makes the decisions, and they’re hoping that they get somebody else that is like, oh, yeah, that sounds reasonable. And they’ll just approve it. So by pretexting a little bit, you can gain access to systems that may not work very well, otherwise. Of course, pretexting is very closely related to impersonation. Impersonation is calling is simply pretending to be somebody else. So with impersonating, I could impersonate one of my students, I can impersonate somebody else and try and get access to their systems. And this also happens every once in a while. For example, there were a couple of instances in the news where somebody got a call from somebody pretending to be their boss’s secretary, and giving them new instructions for how to transfer money. And as soon as they transferred the money, of course, they were transferring it to the attackers, and the money was gone before they even realized what was going on. And of course, that person immediately realized their mistake called their boss directly to double check on the transfer. And obviously, the boss had no idea what was going on, and the money was already gone. And so impersonation is another really strong attack vector in social engineering.

There’s also something called the human buffer overflow. So take a minute and try and read every single word on this page using the color that the word is written in. So it would start with green, red, blue, yellow, blue, black. You have to think about it. And in fact, if you try and go really, really fast, you’ll probably find that you start reading the words instead of saying the colors. This is an example of the human buffer overflow. And so what you can do is by desensitizing people by getting them thinking about other things, you can trick them into saying something or revealing something they wouldn’t normally do. A great way to do this is to have people do a few math problems, such as asking them what’s two plus two? What’s four plus four? What’s eight plus eight? What’s 16 plus 16? And then ask them to name a vegetable. And for a lot of humans, they will immediately answer carrot. Likewise, if you ask them to name a tool, it will probably be a hammer. If you ask them to name a number between five and 12. It will be seven. Seriously try this get some people to do some math problems and get them thinking logically and then ask them some of those random questions. And I think you’ll be really surprised if they don’t take a minute to think about it. Their knee jerk reactions are probably carrots, hammer, seven. It’s worth trying. So that’s one thing you can do.

Another one is definitely quid pro quo. This is a ransom attack. Very famously here in Kansas City, the company, Garmin, was recently attacked by ransomware. And so that’s a quid pro quo attack, they took something they encrypted all of their systems, and then basically held it for ransom and said, if you don’t give us money, we will not decrypt the systems. And so quid pro quo is a very, very powerful attack that is gaining a lot of popularity out there. You’ve seen it done to governments, to hospitals, to large companies. It can be really devastating if they don’t have the proper techniques in place to deal with such an attack.

But there’s a lot more mundane ways that social engineering can happen to. You can have phishing attacks. This is a phishing attack that I got a few years ago from K-State, or at least it looked like it’s from K state, asking us to send some information. So let’s take a look at this email and see what we think. So first, we see that we got this email from It looks pretty legit. It comes from the Kansas State University webmail team. Yeah, that looks right. But then we start reading “due to the congestion in all users and removal of all capital accounts copyright Kansas State University be shutting down”. If you start reading this email, it doesn’t really quite jive. It doesn’t have really good English in it. And then of course, at the bottom, the obvious thing is to ask you for your first name, last name, email address, your username, your password, your password again, just to make sure you got it right, and your eID. And this is kind of interesting. Most people outside of case they don’t even know what an ID is something that’s unique to K-State, but they at least knew to ask for that particular question here. Although the ID, the username, and your email address are all going to be the same thing. So while this is a pretty good phishing attempt, it’s not a great one. But every year these phishing attempts, they can compromise hundreds of casing email accounts every single year.

Likewise, you get these scams, these are known as 419 scams, but you get these all the time. Usually, it’s something where they say that you have won some large amount of money, and they need some information from you to send it to you. And a lot of times they only ask for a few thousand dollars. They’re called 419 scams, because that’s the section of the Nigerian criminal code that makes these illegal. And a lot of these are at least said to originate from Nigeria. This one is from Ivory Coast. And this also is a real one that I received a few years ago when I put on these slides. And so this is a form of what’s called advance fee fraud. They claim to have a large amount of money that they want to send to you, but they can’t quite do it. And so they need you to send just a little bit of money to them so that they can get your money and send it back. Obviously, all of these are fake. But there are many stories online that you can find people that have been scammed for several thousands of dollars or 10s of thousands of dollars by scams, such as this.

Another form of social engineering you might run into is baiting. Baiting is leaving something out there and hoping somebody goes for it. And a great example of this is flash drives. Let’s say you’re walking across campus and you find a flash drive like this laying by the sidewalk. What’s your first instinct? Do you pick it up and take it to the nearest computer and plug it in and see if you can figure out whose it is? Well, if you did that, you might have just infected that computer with a virus that was put on this flash drive. And this is actually a really common form of social engineering. In fact, this has been used as a white hat technique to protect a lot of companies and companies routinely fail this. They put a few flash drives out in the parking lot. A person finds a flash drive. “Oh, I should be a good person and see who this is.” And they immediately infect their company with a virus. And so when you find flash drives like this, especially flash drives that you don’t know where they came from, the best thing you should do is give them to an IT professional and let them deal with it. A lot of times they have systems specifically set up so that they can plug in unknown data devices and make sure that they’re done securely, and won’t infect the system.

And then of course, it’s also important to mention that social engineering does include threats, this XKCD comic once again, does a really good job of describing this. Crypto nerd might think, oh, we’ve got a computer encrypted with a password, let’s build a million dollar cluster to crack it. But in actuality, let’s go get a $5 wrench and just beat this guy over the head with it until he gives us his password. And so you really have to understand tha while there are a lot of very sophisticated systems to protect our computer systems. Sometimes direct threats are something that you have to think about. And that’s something that is really kind of uncomfortable to even think about in the field of cybersecurity. But it’s something to bear in mind that sometimes a direct threat like that is enough to crack a system.

So now that we’ve talked about all these different ways that social engineering can happen, let’s talk about some ways that we can combat social engineering. First and foremost is user training. We need to do a really good job of training our users how to spot these scams. And this happens all the time. You have to train them how to watch for phishing scams and email scams. You have to train people to talk on the phone to listen for phone calls that are trying to solicit more information or trying to fake something out. You have to ask them to be questioning if somebody walks in and claims to be an exterminator. Who called them? Do they have an invoice? Do they have an appointment? Are we expecting you? things like that. All of those fall under user training, we also need to have really good security protocols and audits. We need to make sure that if there is something secure, that we keep it secure. And a security protocol could be as simple as if you’re in a building where you have to swipe your key card to walk in the door, you don’t hold the door open for somebody else. That’s a great form of social engineering is standing outside smoking, and then being like, oh, I forgot my badge can you let me in? And if they’re not thinking about the protocol, they’re just like, sure, I’ll let you in, and you’ve just gained access to a secure building. So having those protocols and audits in place is also really important. As we mentioned earlier, as a user, you should always be a little skeptical, you should always be questioning everything. If you get an email that looks weird, a phone call that looks weird, somebody comes in and is acting suspicious, that little bit of questioning and being on guard can really protect you against a lot of social engineering. You can also perform penetration testing, a lot of companies do this where they will send out fake scam emails, and then anybody that responds to that email has to go through a security training. They can hire companies to try to come in as white hats, and try and break into the building, or talk their way in, or do all sorts of these cool things. And so by penetration testing, you can find those weaknesses in your protocols and make sure that you secure those. Finally, you can also work on properly disposing your garbage. Obviously a lot of social engineering can involve dumpster diving. You pull papers and invoices and things out of the trash. And so if you’re not thinking about that, that can be one way that people can gain a lot of information about your company. And so if you’re even at home, you should be shredding your bank statements or credit card statements cutting up your own credit cards, just in case because there’s a lot of information that can be gotten just from a trash bag that’s left outside.

So finally, let’s talk a little bit about social engineering in practice. Every year there is a DEF CON cybersecurity convention that’s held every year in Las Vegas. And several years they have done what they call a capture the flag style contest. And the whole idea is contestants at that contest try and gain information about companies via the internet first. And then using that information, they will just call the company headquarters and attempt to gain more information or flags for points. And those five could be as simple as what web browser do you use? What version of Windows do you use to who’s your exterminator company? who’s your catering company? All of these pieces of information can be used to construct a really in depth social engineering attack on a company. And so the report is actually quite staggering how a lot of different companies did really, really poorly at this. Obviously part of DEF CON is they went out and asked these companies for permission. Nobody gave them permission to do this. They did it anyway. That’s kind of how DEF CON works. So if you’re interested, I encourage you to read the report. We will link it after this video. It’s really quite fascinating to see what they were able to learn by doing social engineering.