So what is it really? Social Engineering is the act of exploiting a person’s natural tendency to trust another person or entity. Because the vulnerability exists within people, there is no truly effective method for remediation. That is not to say that you cannot protect your sensitive data, but it is to say that you cannot always prevent your people or even yourself from being successfully conned.
The core ingredients required to perform a successful confidence trick are no different today then they were before the advent of the Internet. The con artist must have the victim’s trust, and then trick the victim into performing an action or divulging information. The Internet certainly didn’t create the risk but it does make it easier for the threat to align with the risk.
Before the advent of the Internet the con artist (threat) needed to contact the victim (risk) via telephone, in person, via snail mail, etc. Once contact was made a good story needed to be put into place and the victim’s trust needed to be earned. That process could take months or even years and even then success isn’t guaranteed.
The advent of the Internet provided the threat with many more avenues’ through which it could successfully align with the risk. Specifically, the Internet enables the threat to align with hundreds or even thousands of risks simultaneously. That sort of shotgun approach couldn’t be done before and significantly increases an attackers chances of success. One of the most elementary examples of this shotgun approach is the email based phishing attack.
The email based phishing attack doesn’t earn the trust of its victims; it steals trust from existing relationships. Those relationships might exist between the victim and their bank, family member, co-worker, employer, etc. In all instances the email based phishing attack hinges on the attacker’s ability to send emails that look like they are coming from a trusted source (exploitation of trust). From a technical perspective, email spoofing and phishing is trivial (click here for a more sophisticated attack example).
The reason why it is possible for an attacker to steal trust from a victim instead of earning that trust is because “face to face” trust isn’t portable to the Internet. For example, most people trust their spouse. Many people talk to their spouse on AIM, MSN, Yahoo, Skype, etc. while at work. How do they know that they are really chatting with their spouse and not a hacker?
So how do you protect against the social risks and prevent the threat from successfully aligning with those risks? The truth is that you can't. Con artists have been conning people since the dawn of man. The better question what are you doing to protect your data from the hacker that does penetrate into your IT Infrastructure?