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Hacking human gullibility with social penetration

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Security penetration testers Mike Bailey and Mike Murray rely plenty on attacks that exploit weaknesses in websites and servers, but their approach is better summed up by the famous phrase "There's a sucker born every minute".

That's because so-called social penetration techniques are more reliable and easier to use in identifying chinks in client fortresses, the principals of Mad Security said Wednesday. That's true even for organizations that place a high premium on security and train their employees to resist the most common attempts to trick them into letting down their guard.

"I like finding those elite little exploits where they'll bounce things off eight different websites through cross-site request forgery and cross-site scripting attacks," Bailey said Wednesday at the BSides security conference in San Francisco. "I've never actually needed it in a pentest, because all you have to do is send them a malicious link" or crafty email.

Bailey said he regularly sends client employees emails informing them the strength of their login passwords is being tested through a new website. They are then instructed to follow a link and enter their credentials. The success rate: as high as 50 per cent.

The vulnerability stems from humans' inherent tendency to trust one another. Survival over the millennia largely depended on their ability to work in groups. When one person saw that a group of his peers ate a particular berry and didn't die, he ate the same fruit - and survived as a result. Hackers who understand this trait can exploit it to access companies' most precious assets.

"The social part of our industry, we are never going to patch," Murray said. "We need to have our whole industry understand this. This is what all social attacks are about."

During their hour-long talk, the pair described the most common social penetration methods, which can be found in everything from 419 email scams to trojan attacks that succeed only when a victim clicks on a malicious link.

The come-ons often invoke a sense of urgency, such as an opportunity to make money only if the mark moves quickly. Scammers often try to form perceived bonds with their victims by thanking them for their attention or apologizing for an interruption. The ruses amount to hacks that suspend the marks' critical faculties just long enough to get them to make a critical mistake.

Bailey employed a similar trick last year, when he and two other ethical hackers claimed a $10,000 prize for breaking into the email account of StrongWebMail CEO Darren Berkovitz.

The XSS, or cross-site scripting, vulnerability they identified could only be exploited if the victim clicked on a link while logged in to his account. The solution: They sent him an email with the subject line "we think we've already won this contest," with the attack link in the body. Berkovitz took the bait, and they won the prize.

The technique works even on firms and individuals that regard themselves as especially security savvy, although the tricks often must be tailored to them, Murray warned.

"They spend all this time talking about security," he explained. "If I send them an email saying 'Do the right thing for security,' they say OK, and we own them. The things that normally work in most organizations don't work on them, but if you figure out what works on them, they're as easy to own as anybody else, no matter how intense their preparation is." ®

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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