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People manipulation

Attacking the weakest link

Attacking without borders.
Humans are and always will be the weakest link in security. Learn how to deal with these kinds of holes and how to patch them. Secure your information by adding an extra layer of security to your own people, giving them everything they need to securely achieve their work goal.

Companies invest millions of dollars on IT infrastructure and cybersecurity to keep their information protected. But when it comes to training their employees the investment is barely enough. Employees that daily manipulate, organize, create or update a company’s main data are the main link between IT infrastructure and the data that resides in it. Under the reality that absolute security is impossible, let me ask you: what would you think if I told you there’s a way to get information that does not need any Internet connection, server or computer? There are many types of social engineering attacks but we will mainly focus on the one that does not need any machine nor Internet connection to be successful.

If my systems are secure my data is also secure.

This phrase is usually affirmative, but we have to remember that humans are also an important part of a company’s security. If we don’t consider the human factor the state of security discussed becomes partial and a hacker with malicious intentions could use this weak link to compromise a system or steal sensitive information.

Usually, an intrusion begins by scanning the exposed perimeter that you want to strike. This will display all the exposed, badly protected or open ports and services to vulnerate. They become the entry point of everyone intending to breach a system. But what happens when no service is exposed or highly secured? An attacker must make a decision, force a way in and put himself at risk, or search for a weaker link. This is where social engineering comes into play.

Within the hacker jargon, there’s an attack called the "secretary attack". This assault not only affects secretaries, it’s just the given name. The assault is executed by leaving a USB near or at the victim’s workplace. The attacker only needs to wait for the victim to plug the device in their computer, giving an entry point and allowing to breach the network. Another way to work over this vulnerability is to ask someone to print out a document from an infected USB. It’s common for the attacker to cut ties with the victim once the attack took place, making this type of assault difficult to trace.

The attack mentioned above is widely used no matter if the target is a big or small company. It will be executed when there is no possibility to have direct access to the network devices of a company using a common vulnerability. If this intrusion is successful it will not leave any trace and will allow the aggressor to obtain any wanted information that eventually will be used to penetrate a company’s system, and potentially, risk critical infrastructure. The consequences are not only economical but there is an impact on productivity and credibility within the stakeholders of the organization.

Private Information
Figure 1. Private Information

A cybercriminal can also use this kind of attack to steal information from individuals. The purpose can be to expand a contact’s network and get more information which will allow the thief to become someone else. This situation is known as identity theft, which points us to a new vulnerability called phishing. It allows the attacker to move from one of the victim’s social circle to another and collect more information for later use.

In phishing, an attacker can supplant a company or person using emails, Facebook or other social media. Around 2017, there was an outbreak of phishing attacks coming from Apple. The scammer asked people to login into a fake Apple support page, which asked sensitive data like full name, credit card information, email, and address. The information provided by the victims was used to shop online. Another common example is the “Nigerian Prince”, who will give the victim a considerable amount of money in exchange of a small amount. Usually, USD20-50 will be asked and in return, the fake prince will transfer the victim millions of dollars.

Trusting People
Figure 2. Trusting People

How can a company prevent social engineering attacks? Giving only the exact information a worker needs to fulfill its duties. This must be complemented with good employee training and clear regulations on information disclosure, manipulation or secrecy. By the end of the training, an employee must be able to know what information can be public, and therefore can be shared, or what information is private and should have restained access. This must apply all the time, no matter if they’re outside the company buildings.

The same rule applies to individuals. They should know what information can be public and which should always be private. It is always good to check the sender’s information in every email received to prevent phishing mail targeted to you. Avoid answering unknown emails where they ask you for sensitive or private information such as date of birth, passwords, addresses, phone, credit card or account number, and some other related data. If we "install" a "mental antivirus" of distrusting people or organizations who ask details that should not be widely known we could prevent information leaks, money losses, time waste and headaches that are usually obtained with these kinds of attacks.

Author picture

Mateo Gutiérrez Gómez

Systems engineering undergrad student.

Psychology and cyber security enthusiast.


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