The stereotyped image conjured up by most people when they hear the term "hacker" is that of a pallid, atrophied recluse cloistered in a dank bedroom, whose spotted complexion is revealed only by the unearthly glare of a Linux box used for port scanning with Perl. This mirage might be set off by other imagined features, such as dusty stacks of Dungeons and Dragons lore from the 1980s, empty Jolt Cola cans, and Japanese techno music streaming from the Net.
However, although computer skill is central to a hacker's profession, there are many additional facets that he must master. In fact, if all you can do is point and click, you are a script kiddie , not a hacker. A real hacker must also rely on physical and interpersonal skills such as social engineering and other "wet work" that involves human interaction. However, because most people have a false stereotype of hackers, they fail to realize that the person they are chatting with or talking to on the phone might in fact be a hacker in disguise. In fact, this common misunderstanding is one of the hackers' greatest assets.
Social engineering is not unique to hacking. In fact, many people use this type of trickery every day, both criminally and professionally. Whether it be haggling for a lower price on a lawn mower at a garage sale, or convincing your spouse you really need that new toy or outfit, you are manipulating the "target." Although your motives might be benign , you are guilty of socially engineering the other party.
The Virtual Probe
One example of social engineering that information technology managers face on a weekly basis is solicitation from vendors. An inimical form of sales takes the form of thinly disguised telemarketing. Straying far from ethical standards of sales technique, such vendors will attempt to trick you into giving them information so they can put your company's name on a mailing list.
Here is one such attempt that we get regularly:
"Hi, this is the copier repair company. We need to get the model of your copier for our service records. Can you get that for us?"
Now, this sounds innocent enough, and there are probably many that fall for this tactic. However, they are simply trying to trick you into providing sensitive information ”information that they really have no business knowing.
Like the scam artist, a hacker often uses similar techniques. A popular method that hackers use is pretending to be a survey company. A hacker can call and ask all kinds of questions about the network operating systems, intrusion detection systems (IDSs), firewalls, and more in the guise of a researcher. If the hacker was really malicious, she could even offer a cash reward for the time it took for the network administrator to answer the questions. Unfortunately, most people fall for the bait and reveal sensitive network information.
One of the most common goals of a hacker is to obtain a valid user account and password. In fact, sometimes this is the only way a hacker can bypass security measures. If a company uses firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and more, a hacker will need to borrow a real account until he can obtain root access and set up a new account for himself. However, how can a hacker get this information? One of the easiest ways is to trick someone into giving it to them.
For example, many organizations use a virtual private network (VPN) that enables remote employees to connect to the network from home and essentially become a part of the local network. This is a very popular method of enabling people to work from home, but is also a potential weak spot in any security perimeter. As VPNs are set up and maintained by the IT department, hackers will often impersonate an actual employee and ask one of the IT staff for the password by pretending to have lost the settings. If the IT employee believes the person, he willingly and often gladly hands over the keys. Voila! The hacker now can connect from anywhere on the Internet and use an authorized account to work his way deeper into the network. Imagine if you were the lowly IT staff person on call and the CEO rang you up at 10:30 p.m. irate about a lost password. Would you want to deny her access, risking the loss of your job? Probably not, which makes this type of fear a hacker's best friend.
If you are a home user and think you have nothing to fear from this type of impersonation, think again ”you are actually targeted more often by scammers and hackers alike. This is because many Internet newcomers ( newbies ) will believe anything someone appearing to be their ISP's tech support personnel tells them. For example, hackers will often send out mass messages to people, or sit in chat rooms and wait for a newbie to come along. They will then set up a fake account or use simple tricks to make it appear as if an AOL employee is chatting with them. What the newbies do not realize is that they are actually talking with a hacker in disguise. So, they willingly hand over everything from credit cards to user names and passwords. See Figure 6.1 for an example of how a fake request might appear.
Figure 6.1. Using instant messaging for social engineering.
As you can see, to a beginner it appears that an AOL Administrator is on the other side of this conversation. However, if you look closely, you will see a blank like after Hckr-name: . To make it appear as though an AOL System Administrator is talking, we added a line of space characters to the beginning of the text to drop the AOL System Administrator: to the next line. Although the original name does appear, it would not be difficult for a hacker to set up an account using a date or company name to disguise the fact the account was simply another username.
Social spying is the process of "using observation to acquire information." Although social engineering can provide a hacker with crucial information, small businesses are better protected against social engineering because many people in very small companies know each other. For example, if one of the IT staff received a call from a hacker pretending to be a distressed CEO, he would probably recognize the voice as not belonging to the real CEO. In this case, social spying becomes more important.
To illustrate one of the nontechnical ways social spying can be used, consider how many people handle ATM cards. For example, do you hide your PIN when you take money out at the ATM? Take note of how people protect their PIN the next time you are in line at the ATM. You will probably note most people do not care. Most will whip out their card and punch the numbers without a care for who could be watching. If the wrong person memorized the PIN, he would have all the information needed to access the funds in the account, provided he could first get his hands on the ATM card. Thus, a purse-snatcher would not only get the money just withdrawn from an ATM, but could easily go back and withdraw the entire day's limit.
Similarly, hackers socially spy on users as they enter passwords. A "flower delivery" at 8:00 a.m. in the morning would give a hacker the necessary excuse to casually stroll through an office building. Although she appears to be looking for the recipient of the flowers, she could be watching for people entering passwords or other sensitive information.
In addition to snooping on people as they actively type their user information, most offices have at least several people who are guilty of posting their password on or near their computer monitor. This type of blatant disregard for security is every network administrator's worst nightmare. Regardless of repeated memos, personal visits , and warnings, some people seem to always find an excuse to post their network password right in plain view. Even if some people are at least security-conscious enough to hide their Post-it notes in a discreet place, it still only takes a few seconds to lift up a keyboard or pull open a desk drawer .
If you do not believe this, take a quick walk around and see just how many potential security violations are in your office area. You might be very surprised to see just what type of information is there for the taking!
Have you ever thrown away a credit card statement without shredding it? If so, you are a potential target. Although you might consider your trash to be sacred territory that no one enters because it is dirty, your trash, and the trash of your company, is often a gold mine. Fishing through garbage to find passwords, also known as dumpster diving , can provide a hacker with the crucial information needed to take over your network.
Let's consider a scenario. If you are a network administrator and you receive an anonymous tip that people are posting passwords all around the office, what would you do? Most administrators would immediately investigate and send out a memo to everyone in the company stating that this activity is not allowed, and that violations will be dealt with harshly. Although this might get everyone to temporarily take down their Post-it passwords, the problem has only been exacerbated, for all those passwords are now headed right to the anonymous caller who is waiting at the dumpster.
In addition to passwords, hackers can find memos, sensitive reports , diskettes, old hard drives , and more in the trash. Imagine the value an old cash register hard drive could have to a hacker looking for a way to gain access to a company's credit card database. In many cases, a hard drive can simply be installed on another computer and searched using inexpensive (or free) forensics tools.