Social-Engineer.org 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.
Weak Passwords Are the Norm
When it comes to passwords, the picture is also bleak. In June, Joseph Bonneau at the University of Cambridge released the results of a study analyzing 70 million passwords of Yahoo users in an effort to estimate the difficulty of guessing passwords. Bonneau concluded that humans tend to pick weak passwords.
"We find surprisingly little variation in guessing diffculty; every identifiable group of users generated a comparably weak password distribution," Bonneau writes. "Security motivations such as the registration of a payment card have no greater impact than demographic factors such as age and nationality. Even proactive efforts to nudge users towards better password choices with graphical feedback make little difference. More surprisingly, even seemingly distant language communities choose the same weak passwords and an attacker never gains more than a factor of 2 efficiency gain by switching from the globally optimal dictionary to a population-specific lists."
Creating a Security Awareness and Training Program
"The solution is training and education, and it does work," Spitzner says. He points to one organization that worked with SANS Institute. It managed to decrease its number of infected computers so dramatically that it was able to shift one employee from handling infected machines to working on something else.