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Retail Fail: Walmart, Target Fared Worst In Def Con Social Engineering Contest

Postmortem details released on high-profile contest that targeted Walmart, Target, AT&T, Verizon, HP, Cisco, Mobil, Shell, FedEx, and UPS

Walmart was the toughest nut to crack in last year's social engineering competition at the Def Con hacker conference in Las Vegas, but what a difference a year makes: This year, the mega-retailer scored the worst among the 10 major U.S. corporations unknowingly targeted in the contest.

The third annual Def Con Social Engineering Capture the Flag Contest held at the Def Con 20 conference in late July featured 20 contestants going head-to-head to squeeze as much specific information, or "flags," out of employees at Walmart, AT&T, Verizon, Target, HP, Cisco, Mobil, Shell, FedEx, and UPS in cold-calls. For the first time, men and women were pitted against one another at the event to compete for the most flags they could get from a specific company, and their individual scores were then tallied along with the dossiers they submitted prior to DefCon. The dossiers are reports created by the contestants using intel they gathered prior to the live event using passive information-gathering methods, such as Google searches, social networks, and other online research.

"Last year, the retailers just shut us down big time, but this year retail was the most forthcoming," says Chris "Logan" Hadnagy, a professional social engineer with, who heads up the contest. Walmart and Target ended up with the highest scores, which means they did the worst, he says, with Walmart gaining the dubious distinction of performing the worst by exposing the most information both online and when its employees were cold-called by the social engineering contestants.

Contestants posed as everything from fellow employees to office-cleaning service providers, using these phony personae as pretexts to schmooze the employees to give up seemingly benign but actually very valuable information that can expose an organization to attack. One disturbing trend: Every employee who was asked to visit a URL during the call did so. "Not every company was asked, but every one that was went there. It was a crazy thing: [Even if] they were staunch in not answering questions, but if the caller asked them to go to this URL and said something like, 'I assume you're using IE7,' they would say yes or no and go to the URL," Hadnagy says.

So even if a real attacker only got the user's browser type and got him or her to visit his URL, he would have an in for an attack. "That single attack vector along would be staggering for every company," he says.

Among the flags contestants could pursue were disk-encryption type, ESSID name, computer model and OS, antivirus software, name of cleaning/janitorial service, and the name of the company's third-party security guard company. The contestants placed their cold calls from a sound-proof booth in the SE CTF contest room at DefCon.

Mobil and Shell employees contacted by the SE CTF contestants posing as their various pretext characters were the most cautious and uncooperative in giving up information. "The oil and gas companies really had their people together. We weren't getting anything from them ... they were the only industry that gave us a hard time," Hadnagy says. "They weren't going to answer anything: Even on the Web, there was very little out there" for the dossier reports, Hadnagy says.

And that's something that Hadnagy and his team found was very rare this year. The contestants' dossiers were jam-packed with meaty intel in advance of the live contest, with information gathered from social networks and other sources online. "The amount of information valuable to social engineering -- before a phone call is even made -- is staggering ... I can't believe the amount of data," he says.

Pictures posted online from company parties on Flickr, or papers marked "confidential," were all easily accessible with a little Google-searching, he says. "There were pictures from employees ... with their badges and desktops in the background," for example, he says.

The contestants found wireless network data, disk encryption software, and browser information from most of the target companies, all with a little online searching. "These are things that could be fixed relatively simply," Hadnagy says.

[ Second annual DefCon Kids highlights mobile app security, responsible disclosure, social engineering, and other topics aimed at teaching the ways of white-hat hacking. See AT&T To Sponsor Zero-Day Contest For Kids. ]

One contestant who had competed last year tried a new strategy this year in his precontest dossier research that led to a bizarre turn of events during the live contest. His target company was AT&T, and after finding a Web page of some employee pictures on AT&T's website, he decided to select the employee who looked most like him as his pretext persona for the contest.

"There was a guy in IT that looked a lot like him," Hadnagy says, so the contestant posed as that AT&T IT employee when he rang AT&T, saying he was working that weekend and was worried AT&T could be a target of the Social Engineering Capture the Flag contest that was being held at Def Con. He then asked the employee to provide him details of his computer to ensure he was safe. But unbeknown to him, the AT&T IT employee he was impersonating so happened to be at Def Con as well, attending a session a few doors down from the contest.

"While [the contestant] was there in the booth, all of a sudden the real [AT&T employee] was getting text messages [from work], saying people were getting calls warning about the CTF," Hadnagy says. He then showed up to the SE CTF contest room, along with three of his colleagues, much to the surprise of the contestant. "The guy in the booth thought he was going to get beaten up, but [the AT&T IT employee] thought it was great. This is the kind of story that couldn't have happened anywhere but at Def Con," he says.

Another highlight of the contest was when Keith Alexander, NSA director and chief of the U.S. Cyber Command, unexpectedly dropped into the room during the contest. "He told us, 'You're doing great work, keep training people on' this," Hadnagy says.

It's unclear whether Alexander's visit had anything to do with it, but Hadnagy has been called to the Pentagon later this week to brief military brass on social engineering and the SE CTF.

Hadnagy plans to release his postmortem report on the SE CTF tomorrow.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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