How to address the human element in security?

Regardless of the security expertise and resources you apply to securing your assets, you are unlikely to achieve much unless you focus on the most vulnerable element of your organization: your employees.

"Computers have become much more secure over the past 15 years, but humans have not," says Lance Spitzner, training director for the Securing the Human program at SANS Institute, a cooperative research and education organization focused on security certification. "The human really has become the weakest link."

When It Comes to Security, Humans Are Low-Hanging Fruit
Because the technology itself is no longer necessarily the low-hanging fruit, malicious hackers are finding easier ways to penetrate organizations, like social engineering or preying upon employees with poor password discipline. Employees commonly simply don't know how to write strong passwords, how to comply with data protection policies or share data securely, Spitzner says.

"We define social engineering as understanding what makes a person think, tick, and react and then using those emotional responses to manipulate a person into taking an action that you want them to take," says Chris Hadnagy, a co-founder of security education organization and operations manager at security training and tools firm Offensive Security. Hadnagy is also the author of the book, Social Engineering: The Art of Human Hacking.

At the DEF CON 18 Hacking Conference in 2010, organized its first social engineering capture the flag contest to showcase how social engineers penetrate companies' defenses.

Two weeks prior to the conference, the contestants, amateur social engineers all with little or no experience, were each given the name of a real company. They were allowed to spend the two weeks prior to the contest using "noninvasive" techniques (like Google searches) to compile a dossier on the company to which they had been assigned. They were not allowed to e-mail, telephone or contact the companies, but anything freely available on the Web was fair game. The dossiers were used to create a profile of the company and plan an "attack vector," a strategy for getting employees of the target company to reveal "flags," or bits of information. compiled the flags-things like who handles the firm's tape backups, what browser and version the employee used, the PDF client the employee used or whether the company had a cafeteria and who operated it. The FBI vetted the list of flags and the contest rules specifically prohibited contestants from trying to gain passwords, IP addresses or other sensitive data.

"If you can get someone to give you that information, most likely you could get someone to give you a lot more," Hadnagy says.

In front of a live audience during the conference, the contestants each had the opportunity to work the phones for 25 minutes to reach out to the organization to which they had been assigned and capture as many flags as possible.

The contestants collectively made 140 phone calls to real employees at real companies. Only five of the employees called refused to give contestants the information they were seeking. And in each case, the contestants who reached those employees were able to hang up and call another employee at the same company who did volunteer the information.

Social engineers don't just prey upon people via the phone. Phishing attacks using emails from seemingly legitimate businesses are a prime example of social engineering.