Essays in the Category “Social Engineering”
Every few years, a researcher replicates a security study by littering USB sticks around an organization's grounds and waiting to see how many people pick them up and plug them in, causing the autorun function to install innocuous malware on their computers. These studies are great for making security professionals feel superior. The researchers get to demonstrate their security expertise and use the results as "teachable moments" for others. "If only everyone was more security aware and had more security training," they say, "the Internet would be a much safer place."
Enough of that.
A warrantless FBI search in Las Vegas sets a troubling precedent.
The next time you call for assistance because the Internet service in your home is not working, the 'technician' who comes to your door may actually be an undercover government agent. He will have secretly disconnected the service, knowing that you will naturally call for help and—when he shows up at your door, impersonating a technician—let him in. He will walk through each room of your house, claiming to diagnose the problem. Actually, he will be videotaping everything (and everyone) inside.
Impersonation isn't new. In 1556, a Frenchman was executed for impersonating Martin Guerre and this week hackers impersonated Barack Obama on Twitter. It's not even unique to humans: mockingbirds, Viceroy butterflies, and the brown octopus all use impersonation as a survival strategy. For people, detecting impersonation is a hard problem for three reasons: we need to verify the identity of people we don't know, we interact with people through "narrow" communications channels like the telephone and Internet, and we want computerized systems to do the verification for us.
Last week California became the first state to enact a law specifically addressing phishing. Phishing, for those of you who have been away from the internet for the past few years, is when an attacker sends you an e-mail falsely claiming to be a legitimate business in order to trick you into giving away your account info -- passwords, mostly. When this is done by hacking DNS, it's called pharming.
Financial companies have until now avoided taking on phishers in a serious way, because it's cheaper and simpler to pay the costs of fraud.
Criminals follow money. Today, more and more money is on the Internet: millions of people manage their bank, PayPal, or other accounts-and even their stock portfolios-online. It's a tempting target-if criminals can access one of these accounts, they can steal a lot of money.
And almost all these accounts are protected only by passwords.
Recently I have been receiving e-mails from PayPal. At least, they look like they're from PayPal. They send me to a Web site that looks like it's from PayPal. And it asks for my password, just like PayPal. The problem is that it's not from PayPal, and if I do what the Web site says, some criminal is going to siphon money out of my bank account.
Welcome to the third wave of network attacks, what I have named "semantic attacks." They are much more serious and harder to defend against because they attack the user and not the computers. And they're the future of fraud on the Internet.
The first wave of attacks against the Internet was physical: against the computers, wires and electronics.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
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