Human Hacking: Breaking Down Social Engineering
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Human Hacking: Breaking Down Social Engineering

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Cinthya Alaniz Salazar By Cinthya Alaniz Salazar | Journalist & Industry Analyst - Thu, 06/08/2023 - 12:19

Malicious actors are increasingly embracing the insidious technique known as human hacking, a form of cyberattack that skillfully exploits the vulnerabilities of human psychology. With social engineering tactics proving remarkably effective in manipulating individuals and coercing them into divulging sensitive information or compromising security measures, the urgency to develop comprehensive risk-management strategies has become paramount. Addressing these concerns, industry leaders at Mexico Cybersecurity Summit 2023 underscored the critical importance of tailoring cybersecurity education and policies to individual company departments. These policies should establish robust mechanisms to report and verify suspected attacks, while consistently gathering data on the evolving maturity of cybersecurity protocols to combat the growing volume of social engineering attacks.

"Social engineering attacks demonstrate an alarming rise in sophistication, with an anticipated shift towards increased personalization, making them an acute and imminent danger. Therefore, empowering users with vital education and robust tools to recognize and counter such threats becomes paramount,” says Jonathan Granados, CISO, Airbus.

Social engineering attacks, leveraging psychological manipulation to exploit human vulnerabilities, have long been a leading cause of cybersecurity breaches. These tactics deceive individuals into revealing confidential information or bypassing security measures, such as through phishing or pretexting. Notably, a joint study by Stanford University's Professor Jeff Hancock and security firm Tessian found that a striking 88% of data breaches can be attributed to employee errors. This alarming statistic underscores the critical role of human behavior in cybersecurity. To address this issue, organizations must prioritize education and training initiatives to raise awareness of social engineering techniques and empower employees to recognize and respond to potential threats. 

“Conducting awareness campaigns, running simulated attacks and gathering data to identify areas requiring reinforcement are crucial steps toward fostering a proactive and vigilant cybersecurity culture. Consistency in cybersecurity practices is equally vital, ensuring that security controls become automatic responses, akin to earthquake preparedness measures,” says Manuel Villalvazo, Information System Security Manager, L’Oreal. 

To effectively address the diverse operational needs and varying maturity levels of cybersecurity awareness within different departments, it is crucial to tailor cybersecurity education and policies accordingly. “Companies should retrofit cybersecurity information and policies to cater to the specific requirements of each department. By doing so, organizations can better emphasize the significance of safeguarding information and data to individuals within their respective roles,” says Salvador Valades, Associate Director - Cyber Security Defense Ops, AstraZeneca. A one-size-fits-all approach to cybersecurity education often falls short in conveying the relevance and importance of security measures to employees. Therefore, internal awareness initiatives need to adopt a more personal and interactive approach to ensure that individuals truly understand the implications of their actions on information security. Interactive training programs and engagement activities can significantly improve knowledge retention and encourage active participation in implementing security controls.

Establishing robust mechanisms to report and verify suspected social engineering attacks is of utmost importance in strengthening an organization's cybersecurity defenses. Prompt reporting allows for a timely response to potential threats, enabling organizations to take necessary action to mitigate the impact. Additionally, “it is crucial for companies to effectively communicate the rules and policies developed in response to user-reported attacks. This not only reinforces the culture of cybersecurity within the organization but also provides transparency and clarity to employees, empowering them to actively participate in protecting the company's information assets,” says Ángel Gangas, Senior Consultant, Mandiant. By fostering an environment where individuals feel confident and supported in reporting suspicious activities, organizations can leverage collective vigilance to thwart social engineering attacks and strengthen their overall cybersecurity posture.

Gathering data on the evolving maturity of cybersecurity protocols is crucial to effectively combat social engineering attacks. By collecting data from awareness and education campaigns, organizations can gain valuable insights into the state of cybersecurity knowledge within their workforce. “This data serves as a vital resource to identify areas where efforts need to be reinforced. It allows companies to pinpoint knowledge gaps, vulnerabilities or specific departments that may require additional training and support,” says Valades. Data-driven decision-making enables organizations to allocate resources strategically, focusing on the areas most in need of improvement. Moreover, consistent data collection provides a benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of cybersecurity initiatives over time. By monitoring the fluctuating maturity of cybersecurity knowledge, organizations can adapt their training programs and policies to ensure they remain relevant and effective in countering social engineering attacks.

“The continuous gathering of data fosters a proactive approach to cybersecurity, promoting ongoing learning and improvement in an ever-evolving threat landscape,” says Erik Moreno, Head of Cybersecurity Services, Minsait.

Looking towards the future, the anticipated personalization of social engineering attacks poses significant challenges and underscores the importance of empowering users with education and tools to recognize and counter such threats. “Threats that can have a profound impact on human lives. A successful social engineering attack can force companies to make difficult decisions, such as laying off employees, which can result in job losses and economic instability. Moreover, in certain industries like mining, cybersecurity breaches that lead to stalled operations can even have fatal consequences,” says Gangas. The potential risks associated with personalized social engineering attacks highlight the urgent need to enhance user awareness and preparedness. Through a combination of education, training and the deployment of robust cybersecurity tools, individuals can become the first line of defense against personalized social engineering attacks, contributing to a safer and more resilient organizational ecosystem.

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