To provide some perspective on just how poorly corporate America is able to combat social engineering attacks today, consider this: Famously secretive Apple fared the worst in a recent social engineering contest.
Organizers of the annual Social Engineering Capture The Flag (SETF) contest at DEF CON have released the final report on the competition, held in August in Las Vegas, and the findings don't bode well for enterprises: Social engineering exploits are as easy as ever to pull off successfully, with contestants able to glean valuable company information online and from employees answering phones at Apple, General Motors, Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, Chevron, Boeing, Walt Disney, Exxon, General Dynamics, and General Electric.
The fifth annual SETF, which is held to raise awareness about social engineering threats, included 10 men and 10 women contestants who each initially conducted online research (no hacking or direct contact allowed) on their assigned target company for the contest. They then placed live telephone calls to their target in a soundproof booth at DEF CON in front of an audience of attendees and contest organizers. Each was scored based on the "flags," or specific checklist items, they were able to obtain from their targets, such as the caller's browser, operating system, or getting them to visit a rigged URL.
"The bottom line is [the target corporations] did really poorly," says Michele Fincher, chief influencing agent for Social-Engineer, Inc., the firm that runs the event each year at DEF CON. "The companies who happened to do well did so accidentally or out of ignorance in they either couldn't answer the question or didn't know how, so the call shut down. Very few [employees] said, 'I am not allowed to give out this information.'"
One male contestant in the online-research portion of the contest prior to the live event was able to access a document on his assigned target company's public website that provided him the credentials to log into the company's intranet. "He didn't do any hacking on the corporate website, [which is against the rules]. But he found a document to help new employees log in that literally showed a real badge with login information that actually worked. Using that credential, he got into the employee intranet," Fincher says.
Fincher, who wouldn't name the targeted firm, says that finding highlighted just how easy it is to gather valuable information on a targeted organization via the Internet using open-source intelligence, a.k.a. OSINT, or information gathered from publicly available sources such as websites, social media, and other online resources. "There has not been a lot of activity on the part of corporations to improve this sort of exposure and data leakage," she says.
The bulk of the intel gathered by the contestants this year came from OSINT. "Most of the points were actually obtained" online this way, Fincher says. The contestants actually earned two times the amount of points via OSINT than they did in their live calls to the targets -- and the OSINT flags were worth half of the points as the ones captured during the live portion of the contest, she says.
"What that really means is that it doesn't take a skilled social engineer to dig through the Net and find information," Fincher says.
While the contestant assigned to Apple was able to garner the most total points from the target, 1,200, and the contestant assigned to GE, the lowest with less than 300, that doesn't mean one company is necessarily a weaker link than another. "Here's the thing: You can't really make hard-core assumptions that Apple is bad and GE is good," Fincher says. Other factors include the caller's expertise, the respondent's naivete -- plus the amount of information the contestant was able to research and gather online prior to the event to help his or her mission to extract information.
The top flags captured by the contestants, in order, were Internet browser type; operating system information; information on corporate wireless access; confirmation of a corporate VPN; and the presence of an on-site cafeteria. Browser and OS intel could aid an attacker in crafting a targeted phishing email, for instance.
[Postmortem details released on high-profile contest that targeted Walmart, Target, AT&T, Verizon, HP, Cisco, Mobil, Shell, FedEx, and UPS. See Retail Fail: Walmart, Target Fared Worst In Def Con Social Engineering Contest.]
Why the cafeteria flag? Service workers in food and janitorial services often fly under the radar with physical access to all types of possible information leaks, including trash cans or documents, according to Fincher.
"One of the key findings are across the board there is way too much information to be gathered through open source. The training being provided is not adequate to cover this," Fincher says. "There's a lot of focus on technology: It's a lot easier to put up a firewall. But a conversation can be way more damaging than malware."
It takes more customized, repetitive training to teach employees to be careful in what they share online or in conversation, she says. "I would like to see people put as much effort in keeping their human network safe" as they do their computer networks, she says.
The full report on this year's SECTF is available here for download.
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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. 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