Social Engineering and its Countermeasures

Social Engineering and its Countermeasures

Douglas P. Twitchell (Illinois State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-132-2.ch014
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This chapter introduces and defines social engineering, a recognized threat to the security of information systems. It also introduces a taxonomy for classifying social engineering attacks along four dimensions: who or what the targets are, what media are used, how the attacks fit in an attack cycle, and the techniques used to execute the attacks. Additionally, the chapter discusses current social engineering countermeasures and how to map attack types to these countermeasures. Finally, the chapter ends with a discussion of future trends and technologies for defending against social engineering attacks. Use of the taxonomy should help security professionals and researchers understand social engineering attacks, and implementation of the discussed current and future countermeasures should help professionals reduce the risks associated with social engineering attacks.
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In 1970, Jerry Schneider took part in an early example of social engineering. While dumpster diving the local Pacific Telephone office, Jerry found the procedures for making internal equipment orders and charging them to company accounts. Posing on the phone, or pretexting, as company employees he was able to get the correct account numbers and eventually stole and resold about $250,000 in computer equipment (Whiteside, 1979). Twenty-five years later, in 2005, Hewlett-Packard’s board discovered that sensitive information from a board meeting had been leaked to the media. The chairman of the board decided to determine the culprit and hired a security consulting firm for the job. Private investigators from the firm called the phone company and, posing as the victims, or pretexting, obtained the phone records of members of the media without their knowledge (Kersetter, 2006; Shankland, 2006). Recently, many people with email accounts have been recipients of yet another social engineering attack, phishing, the use of deceptive emails to encourage users to input sensitive identifying data. These three cases are specific examples of a more general information security phenomenon: social engineering.

Social engineering is the use of deception and other non-technical means to gain unauthorized access to information or information systems. Social engineering has been used to describe a number of attacks ranging from widespread phishing for identity information to targeted pretexting for corporate or governmental espionage. Social engineers rely on psychological triggers (e.g., fear, kindness, and greed) and cognitive biases (e.g., truth bias, anchoring, and miscalculation of risk) to gain unauthorized access and evade detection. For the most part, current countermeasures against social engineering attacks rely on people for prevention by educating users through awareness programs and by policy implementation, enforcement and auditing, although new technical countermeasures are emerging.

This chapter has the following objectives:

  • Define social engineering

  • Provide a taxonomy of social engineering attacks

  • Discuss emotional triggers and cognitive biases on which social engineers rely

  • Describe current social engineering countermeasures and how they map to techniques

  • Discuss future trends in social engineering research and countermeasures



Social engineering has been used to describe a number of attacks ranging from widespread phishing for identity information to narrow pretexting for specific records. It is unclear who first coined the term “social engineering,” but several have attempted to define it. Some definitions are as simple as “the art and science of getting people to comply to your wishes” (Harl, 1997) to much more complex definitions. For the purposes of this chapter, social engineering will be defined as follows:

Social Engineering is the exploitation of psychological triggers and cognitive biases as a means to gain unauthorized access to information or information systems.

Phishing and pretexting are only two examples of social engineering attacks that manipulate or deceive targets to obtain information. Table 1 contains some additional examples of social engineering attacks.

Table 1.
Examples of social engineering techniques
Asking for Favors (Lively Jr., 2003)
Dumpster Diving
Cold Calling
Contriving Situations (Silltow, 2001)
Giving out free software
Reverse Social Engineering
Shoulder Surfing
Simple Requests
Trojan Horses

Key Terms in this Chapter

Phishing: Using fraudulent emails to direct users to websites that mimic valid websites in order to obtain private information.

Penetration Testing: Use of active hacking techniques to test the effectiveness of information security controls.

Proximity: The closeness of parties to a communication.

Synchronicity: The turn-taking nature of communications. Synchronous communication requires immediate feedback while asynchronous communication allows time to pass between turns.

Targeting: The extensiveness of the pool of potential targets in social engineering attacks.

Social engineering: The exploitation of psychological triggers and cognitive biases as a means to gain unauthorized access to information or information systems.

Modality: The type of media used to communicate during a social engineering attack.

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