Securing Information Assets:
Understanding, Measuring and Protecting against Social Engineering Attacks

Academic dissertation for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Computer and
Systems Sciences at Stockholm University to be publicly defended on
Thursday 15 January 2009 at 13:00 in sal C, Forum, Isafjordsgatan 39, Kista

Marcus Nohlberg

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Abstract

Social engineering denotes, within the realm of security, a type of attack against the
human element during which the assailant induces the victim to release information or
perform actions they should not. Our research on social engineering is divided into three
areas: understanding, measuring and protecting. Understanding deals with finding out
more about what social engineering is, and how it works. This is achieved through the
study of previous work in information security as well as other relevant research areas.
The measuring area is about trying to find methods and approaches that put numbers on
an organization's vulnerability to social engineering attacks. Protecting covers the ways
an organization can use to try to prevent attacks. A common approach is to educate the
users on typical attacks, assailants, and their manipulative techniques. In many cases
there are no preventive techniques, dealing with the human element of security, in place.

The results show that social engineering is a technique with a high probability of
success. Furthermore, defense strategies against it are complicated, and susceptibility to
it is difficult to measure. Important contributions are a model describing social
engineering attacks and defenses, referred to as the Cycle of Deception, together with a
thorough discussion on why and how social engineering works. We also propose new
ways of conducting social engineering penetration testing and outline a set of
recommendations for protection. It is crucial to involve managers more, but also to train
the users with practical exercises instead of theoretical education, for example, by
combining measuring exercises and penetration testing with training. We also discuss
the future threat of Automated Social Engineering, in which software with a simple
form of artificial intelligence can be used to act as humans using social engineering
techniques online, making it quite hard for Internet users to trust anyone they
communicate with online.

Stockholm 2009, ISBN 978-91-7155-786-5, ISSN 1101-8526

Department of Computer and Systems Sciences (together with KTH)

Adobe PDF-version (high quality)

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Thesis cover (pdf)

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It all went well.


(Page updated March 11, 2009)