The psychology of users and susceptibility to social engineering

Ransomware has been in the news a lot recently (see our blog here) and it is not likely to change any time soon.

It’s certainly important to focus on technical controls like patching, out of date software and application execution controls to protect against it. There is, however, also a human side to understanding why organisations and more particularly their people are successfully attacked.  This has implications for the relative importance we place on technical controls.

Social engineering includes a number of well-established techniques used by attackers to deceive users into divulging their personal information or, in the context of ransomware, clicking on a link that they shouldn’t.

Don’t click on anything you’re unsure about

Technical vulnerabilities in systems (as in the Travelex case) or endpoints are a big problem; they can be exploited as a point of ingress for ransomware attacks. The other vulnerability for exploitation is, of course, the user.

If a user, inside the network, can be induced to click a link (and download/activate malware) or an attachment (that contains a sinister payload) the attacker has gained a foothold in your organisation. It’s from this point that the attack or infection will propagate.  Importantly, the vulnerability of the systems across the rest of the network is the determining factor in how the malware spreads; but it is that initial click or user action that sets off an irreversible set of events.

Obviously hackers pay close attention to the technical aspects of their attack, but also, they game the psychology of the user they wish to subvert.  The manipulation behind this is often subtle but malicious.  It remains good advice to discourage users from clicking on suspicious links or attachments from people they don’t know. Attackers, however, are unrelenting in their efforts to entice users with links or attachments that look genuine and trustworthy.  They prey on the emotional responses, biases and psychology of targeted users with ruthless efficiency.

The initial attack

The psychology of how the attacker persuades people who, despite hours of security awareness training, still want to, need to, or feel compelled to click on a baited link is disturbingly easy.

Psychological manipulation by attackers can be used to prey on people’s emotions, to get them to lower their guard or to even do things that they might have been told specifically not to do.  There are several emotions that attackers commonly exploit:

Greed

“I can help you get rich.”

This was really where phishing started, the so-called Nigerian scams. Normally they involve an exiled prince, an unexpectedly rich but erstwhile unknown relative and a large sum of money. The offer is the promise for the victim to get access to an unexpected windfall by letting the phisher use their bank account, or receive some sort of introduction fee.

Fear

“Click this link or you are in trouble.”

These messages inform the unsuspecting user of a particular situation they are about to find themselves in. They prey on the fear created by threats of a pending investigation, or a problem with the tax office and the fact that if the user doesn’t respond urgently to the situation there will be severe ramifications for them.

It may relate to a person’s role at work “can you do this because the CEO is stuck and needs it doing” or more personal, like the user being advised of their having committed a serious breach of the law that will lead them to be arrested or fined if they don’t respond; urgently.

Concern

“Can you help me by clicking here?”

These ’calls for help’ are usually financial ones (the classic Nigerian scams play on both greed or a false charity/crisis variant where the user is persuaded or made to feel they must help the sender).

These are targeted to appeal to the user’s better nature, seeking a positive response to a human tragedy or a direct request for assistance.  If the stakes are high, and the attacker’s request simple, some people will ‘hold the door open’, not suspecting for a moment that they are being duped.

Kindness

“Help the children / natural disaster victims / underprivileged / refugees from conflict / the lonely”

Though these may not necessarily be targeted at the user IT systems themselves, it is not uncommon for false collection emails/sites to spring up, collecting money for the wronged, but not linked in any way to the charity or disaster people believe they are helping.  Given the treachery of some of these attackers, even those masquerading as supporters to the social good, the temptation to click and donate is often enough to get bank details to be used as an infection route from malware.

Some of these categories or techniques might seem a bit removed from ransomware, but remember these scams are organised. It’s a bit like e-marketing campaigns: a list of people/email addresses that fell for one scam (say a financial fraud or false charity appeal) can be often targeted in another. Don’t underestimate the guile of these adversaries; sometimes email addresses of people that have previously fallen prey to a particular attack are traded for a fee between attackers.

Averting ransomware and other attacks

Phishing and its variants (like spear phishing, or whaling) remain a major means of the theft of credentials, the perpetration of fraud and the initial infection of malware into a network.  This applies whether the ransomware has financial motives or simply seeks to steal data or cause other dislocation.

Ransomware is a persistent and ubiquitous problem.  It is highly visible and hugely disruptive – with attacks up 150% in 2020 and even faster, so far, for 2021.  In some cases, the effects go beyond data encryption to systems and internet connections needing to be severed to limit the spread.  As a result, the impacts to services and downtime can last for days if not weeks.  Paying the ransom can be costly but, even if you do, you may never get your data back.

While user awareness is an important element, tackling the problem of users falling for these types of scams is far from perfect. The sophistication of the psychological tactics used by attackers – preying on base human emotions – means that every organisation must face the fact that: Attacks will happen despite the training given to staff.

This means that, in parallel with defences against social engineering, technical controls must be implemented across the organisation and their effectiveness monitored to complement staff training and strengthen your ransomware readiness.  You must do security awareness training, but you must put controls in place, as well.

This means:

  • Patching systems – To prevent vulnerabilities that could be used to introduce malware or to allow it to spread from the initial point of infection
  • Constraining user access – Ensuring people have access only to the systems and data they need to complete their tasks, thereby limiting the spread of the malware
  • Network segmentation – Try to contain the impacts of any problem to only a part of the network and avoid it spreading elsewhere
  • Minimising privileged access – There is a lot that a piece of ransomware can do if it is running with administrative privileges. Tighten up admin rights to limit privileges – who has it, when they use it, and what rights they actually have.
  • Have backups – Servers, workstations, everything… even if you pay a ransom there is no guarantee you will get data back. If your plan is to maximise your ability to return to BAU as quickly as possible after an attack, reliable recent backups might be your only way forward.

Summary

Users aren’t silly, and security awareness training is invaluable, but it’s equally important to recognise that social engineering efforts are designed precisely to exploit our human frailties; even to the degree of momentarily forgetting lessons from last week’s awareness program.

The attackers are very aware of how to use psychology against you. To defend your enterprise you must be prepared for it and anticipate potential human failings with effective security controls. It is another example of the asymmetry that exists in cyber security between attackers and defenders:  Defenders want all users to spot and avoid all social engineering attacks all the time.  Attackers only need to find one user who will fall for one scam on one occasion to make their attack successful.

If you can’t change human nature, you can at least anticipate what its effects might be, and therefore have compensatory controls in place to protect your systems and data.

Learn How To Measure And Track Your Cyber Controls

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