Cyber Security and Social Engineering: A Big Low Tech Problem

by LeClairRyan

Headline-grabbing cyber hacks of email accounts belonging to celebrities, corporations, government officials and political campaigns are becoming the norm.  Cybersecurity intended to guard against these acts brings to mind high tech computer hardware and software fixes delivered by knowledgeable IT professionals, who are expected to prevent network intrusions, stolen passwords, viruses, ransomware attacks and other hacks.

But the most recent notable cyber hacks were not caused by high tech espionage.  Rather, they were the product of low tech social engineering – the use of deception to manipulate users into divulging confidential passwords and other personal information.  This kind of hack takes many forms – examples include security alerts from what appear to be trusted websites to update passwords and phishing emails from what appear to be known, trusted contacts asking to download files or click on provided links.

The consequences of computer network penetration through social engineering have been dire for victims, as the recent hack of the Clinton presidential campaign organization illustrates.  There, the campaign chair received what appeared to be a genuine email from Google’s “Gmail Team” informing him that a Ukrainian computer had just used his password to try to sign in to his Gmail account.  The email went on to say that Google had stopped the attempt, advised the chair to change his password immediately, and provided a “Change Password” link.  Believing the email to be authentic, the chair clicked on the link and changed his password.  But as the world now knows, the change went to hackers who downloaded the 30,000-plus emails in the account and sent them to WikiLeaks for publication. This hack succeeded only because hackers used social engineering techniques to trick the unwitting user into effectively giving a secure password to what appeared to be a trusted source.

For the foreseeable future, low-tech social engineering hacking will continue to be a dominant cyber risk.  If anything, it is likely to proliferate across growing and emerging technology platforms – mobile and other Internet-enabled devices (Internet of Things) and social media.

What can be done to mitigate this pernicious risk?  More and better cyber “hygiene” – no different than regularly washing hands to prevent infection.  Good cyber hygiene practices include:

  • Getting educated about common social engineering hacking techniques. Cyber security guides produced by public and private organizations are readily available – online, in hard copy and through educational resources.
  • Staying educated.  Like viruses, hacking techniques regularly evolve and adapt to changing circumstances.  Good hygiene calls for on-going and continuous training and education.
  • Incorporating best practices into daily routine. Good hygiene only works when users take action to follow cyber security best practices – including installing and regularly updating antivirus and anti-intrusion programs.
  • Auditing compliance. To ensure good hygiene, processes should be in place that can monitor system activity, confirm that best practices are being followed and take appropriate measures to reduce potential risks.
  • Being vigilant. As part of education and training, best practices call for users to follow the common sense tenet that if something does not look right, it’s worth taking that extra moment to consider whether it is right.
  • Being skeptical. Given that social engineering techniques regularly change and adjust to changing circumstances, do not automatically assume that trusted sources that make requests to change passwords, download photos to share files are legitimate.
  • Timely reporting out of the ordinary matters. A simple rule applies:  when in doubt, ask for help.  And don’t delay because that may only make matters worse.
  • Repeating above. Cyber security is an ongoing process that changes as fast as technology changes.  And technology changes fast.

These suggestions are by no means cure-alls. But they will reduce social engineering risk and may demonstrate a prudent effort to address a serious problem we all regularly face.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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