Social Engineering: A Persistent Threat in IT

6 min readDec 6, 2023
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In the dynamic world of IT security, professionals are accustomed to guarding against threats that leverage technical expertise to breach systems. However, there’s another, often underestimated, adversary: the social engineer. These individuals exploit human psychology, not just technology, to gain access to sensitive information. For IT security experts, understanding the nuances of social engineering is crucial, as their own expertise can sometimes make them unexpected targets of sophisticated schemes.

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What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is the art of manipulating people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. Unlike direct cyber-attacks that exploit technical vulnerabilities, social engineering attacks exploit human vulnerabilities. Digital Guardian defines it as an act involving psychological manipulation, where unsuspecting individuals are tricked into revealing sensitive data or performing unsafe actions.

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Common Social Engineering Attacks

1. Phishing: The most prevalent form, phishing attacks often use emails or messages that invoke urgency or fear, prompting victims to reveal information or click malicious links.

2. Pretexting: This involves creating a fabricated scenario to obtain personal information. Attackers often impersonate trusted individuals or authorities to extract sensitive data.

3. Baiting: Like phishing, baiting lures victims with the promise of goods or services to steal login credentials or install malware.

4. Quid Pro Quo: Offers of services in exchange for information, like fraudsters posing as SSA personnel asking for Social Security Numbers.

5. Tailgating: An attacker follows an authorized person into a restricted area, exploiting physical security weaknesses.

6. CEO Fraud: A type of spear-phishing where attackers pose as high-level executives to trick employees into financial transactions or divulging confidential information.

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Unique Threats to IT Security Experts

IT security professionals, while vigilant against technical threats, might overlook more nuanced social engineering tactics. Some unique risks include:

- Badge Spoofing: Attackers may replicate security badges using images sourced from social media or company websites, gaining unauthorized access to secure areas.

- Badge Copying from Photos: High-resolution photos of employees can be exploited to clone security badges, especially when badge details are visible.

- Exploitation via Personal Relationships: Security experts might be targeted through seemingly innocuous relationships, where an individual’s primary motive is to extract confidential information or gain privileged access.

Unique Social Engineering Threat for Software Engineers: “The Code Review Scam”

Software engineers, well-versed in coding and system security, may not always be alert to more subtle social engineering tactics. One such unique threat is the “Code Review Scam.” This method is particularly insidious because it exploits the routine practices and collaborative nature of software development.

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The Code Review Scam Explained

In this scenario, an attacker poses as a fellow software developer or a potential contributor to an open-source project. They approach a software engineer with a request to review or collaborate on a piece of code. This request seems innocuous and in line with standard industry practices. However, the code or the development environment provided by the attacker is laced with hidden malicious functions.

How the Scam Unfolds

1. Initial Contact: The attacker reaches out via professional networks, email, or through a contribution request on platforms like GitHub.

2. Establishing Credibility: They build credibility by showcasing their knowledge or sharing links to their (fake or compromised) repositories.

3. The Request: The attacker asks the engineer to review code or collaborate on a feature, providing access to a code repository or development environment.

4. The Trap: The provided code or environment contains hidden malicious elements. These could range from backdoors embedded in the code to compromised development tools that can infect the engineer’s system or steal credentials.

5. Exploitation: Once the engineer interacts with the malicious code or environment, the attacker gains access to sensitive information, company codebases, or internal systems.

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Why Software Engineers are Vulnerable

- Routine Practice: Code review and collaboration are routine, making it easy for engineers to lower their guard in familiar scenarios.

- Curiosity and Eagerness to Collaborate: Engineers often have a natural curiosity and willingness to explore new code and collaborate, which can be exploited.

-Access to Sensitive Systems: Software engineers typically have access to critical parts of a company’s IT infrastructure, making them high-value targets.

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Mitigation Strategies

1. Verify Identity and Credentials: Always verify the identity and credentials of individuals requesting code reviews or collaboration, especially if they are not from known contacts.

2. Use Secure Platforms: Conduct code reviews and collaboration through trusted, secure platforms. Be wary of downloading code or tools from unverified sources.

3. Limit Access: Use principle of least privilege when granting access to repositories or development environments, especially with new collaborators.

4. Security Training: Regular security awareness training for software engineers, focusing on the recognition of social engineering tactics.

5. Incident Reporting Protocols: Establish clear protocols for reporting suspicious requests or activities.

By being aware of such targeted social engineering tactics, software engineers can better protect themselves and their organizations from these covert threats.

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Preventing Social Engineering Attacks

1. Scrutinize Emails: Avoid opening emails from untrusted sources and verify unexpected requests from known contacts.

2. Question Too-Good-to-Be-True Offers: Approach stranger offers skeptically.

3. Secure Workstations: Always lock laptops and devices when unattended.

4. Utilize Anti-Virus Software: While not foolproof, they offer a layer of defense against malicious software.

5. Familiarize with Company Policies: Understand protocols for allowing visitors and managing security incidents.

6. Verify Urgent Requests: Double-check the authenticity of urgent internal requests, especially those involving financial transactions.

7. Cultivate a Risk-Aware Culture: Promote continuous awareness and encourage reporting of suspicious activities.

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For IT security professionals, the challenge of social engineering lies in its exploitation of human elements rather than technical ones. By recognizing these tactics and implementing strong personal and organizational security practices, IT experts can fortify their defenses against these insidious and evolving threats. Lest we forget those who have been fooled and cannot let go their folly.




Experienced Cyber Security/Intelligence Analyst with a demonstrated history of working in the US Military and IT industry.