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9/20/2006
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In Other Words, Lying

It's an easy hop, skip, and jump from phone phreaking to social engineering and pretexting

How did the word "pretexting" slip into the lexicon? It is liberally used to describe the process of masquerading as a telephone customer and convincing the phone company to retrieve the records of all the calls your target has made. There is another word for that: lying. Or, in the hacking world, we call it social engineering. The chairman of HP was recently forced to relinquish her position thanks to authorizing private investigators to obtain the phone records of HP board members in this manner.

Making a call and pretending to be someone else has a long history. The early phone phreakers would tap into a line on a pole for instance, call the AT&T operator under the pretext of being a lineman, and request a free connection to, say, Istanbul. Competitive intelligence gathering often involves calling and asking for information under the pretext of being a "student doing a research project," for instance. At tradeshows there are always people wandering around with their badges turned over or with a borrowed badge attempting to learn about competitors' products.

There is an art to social engineering. Some people are good at it. When Coopers & Lybrand merged with PriceWaterhouse there was a decision to be made: Should the security auditing team continue using social engineering against its clients as PriceWaterhouse did, or should it decline all future social engineering projects?

While the debate did occur, I give a lot of credit to the new firm's security practice leader, Bruce Murphy, for never wavering. Social engineering was not to be a service offering of the new PWC. Think about it: Should a public accounting firm, whose partners sign annual reports as being true and accurate, be in a position where you could hire it to lie, even if only to your own employees? I think not.

Social engineering is employed by the bad guys too. They have no compunctions about using any means to get what they want. Phishing involves social engineering. The targets must be convinced that they need to log in to their account. Often the phishing email suggests that their account has been suspended, and they need to log in immediately to set it to rights. Viruses and spyware are most often delivered via social engineering. How else could you be induced to click on a link that led you to a malicious site or open an executable attached to an email?

Need I mention the Nigerian 419 scams and their counterparts, the "you have the same surname as the deceased" and "receipt of funds" scams? These are elaborate schemes that involve a targeted, persistent attack against the mark, using artful pretexting. Thousands of people have succumbed to these email-borne scams at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the FBI.

As the case has unfolded, we've learned that investigating the members of HP's board of directors dates back over a year. And HP has a security team that works with outside agencies that employ pretexting to get phone records.

Recent reports in the New York Times even suggest that HP studied the possibility of infiltrating the offices of the Wall Street Journal and CNET in San Francisco to track down the source of information leaks. The idea was to get its agents hired as cleaning or secretarial staff. Someone at HP must be a big Martin Sheen fan. (Remember his night job as a clandestine janitor in the movie, Wall Street?)

Unfortunately, this means of social engineering taken to an extreme is often employed by private investigators and criminals. It is easier and more effective than dumpster diving, computer hacking, or wire tapping. But hey, if lying to the phone company to obtain records is okay, what's wrong with lying to an office administrator about your background to get hired under the pretext of being a secretary looking for work?

Don't let yourself fall into the trap of using words to mask the culpability of your actions the way HP did. Pretexting, or lying, is a form of social engineering which is wrong. As soon as the legal system catches up with today’s world of networks and computers it will be recognized as a criminal act as well. Rather than worrying about which director talked to which journalist, worry about who is successfully using a pretext to infiltrate your organization right now.

— Richard Stiennon is founder of IT-Harvest Inc. Special to Dark Reading

  • AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)
  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers International

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