Social engineering attacks are a critical threat to cybersecurity across organizations. Nearly every organization whose personnel interface with networks, applications, or sensitive data requires protection against social engineering attacks, such as phishing, whaling, and tailgating. Social engineering penetration testing is a threat and vulnerability assessment tool that can help prevent threat actors from exploiting social engineering vulnerabilities.
How Can You Implement Social Engineering Penetration Testing?
When applied to social engineering attacks, social engineering penetration testing involves simulating a threat attack to identify personnel behavioral vulnerabilities that could risk the security of your organization’s digital assets.
Specifically, these attacks may depend on the nature of applications, networks, or sensitive data within an organization’s IT infrastructure. Your organization can develop robust defenses against social engineering attacks by conducting Social engineering pen-testing based on:
- Data sensitivity
- Risk to applications
Developing a methodology for social engineering penetration testing can protect your organization from costly phishing and related attacks.
What is Pen-Testing?
Penetration testing, or “pen-testing,” is a tool for “ethical hacking,” wherein a team of cybersecurity professionals attempts to breach your organization’s digital environment—including networks, servers, or applications—to identify existing security gaps and vulnerabilities.
What is Social Engineering?
Any organization can be prone to social engineering attacks, which may seek to:
- Gain credentials
- Access sensitive data
- Deliver malware
While there are similarities between some forms of social engineering attacks, such as phishing and whaling, the nature of execution may vary across organizations. What does remain consistent is the attackers’ attempts to falsify legitimate authority (e.g., C-level executives within the same organization, banks, government agencies) or place the victim into a state of distress.
Social Engineering Pen-Testing for Sensitive Data Environments
Organizations that process sensitive data are common targets for social engineering attacks. Specifically, social engineering attacks often target organizations processing protected health information (PHI) and cardholder data (CHD).
Your organization can utilize the compliance frameworks protecting these sensitive data to guide social engineering penetration testing.
HIPAA-Guided Pen-Testing for PHI Vulnerabilities
Organizations within or adjacent to the healthcare industry can utilize social engineering penetration testing to identify commonly exploitable vulnerabilities that violate compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). As the main compliance framework in the healthcare industry, HIPAA stipulates requirements for covered entities and their business associates to follow while processing, storing, or transmitting PHI.
Organizations interfacing with PHI can conduct social engineering penetration testing, using guidance from two of the HIPAA Rules, specifically the:
- HIPAA Privacy Rule, which categorizes PHI as protected information and stipulates PHI uses and disclosures
- HIPAA Security Rule, which lists out the necessary safeguards for electronic PHI (ePHI)
OSINT for Informing Social Engineering Penetration Testing
Applying open-source threat intelligence (OSINT)—which relies on publicly available data—can help compile a list of HIPAA-related vulnerabilities commonly exploited to launch social engineering attacks. The threat intelligence generated can then be applied as a social engineering security testing tool, helping a HIPAA-defined covered entity or business associate thereof identify existing vulnerabilities, including but not limited to:
- Gaps in email security – Penetration testing by deploying “fake” phishing attacks based on OSINT can reveal email security vulnerabilities, the most common of which include:
- Personnel opening spam emails containing potentially malicious links
- Personnel downloading and opening email attachments from unknown senders
- Outdated or user-blocked antivirus software
- Personnel responding to suspicious emails
- Lack of multi-factor authentication for accessing email across devices
- Unauthorized ePHI removal from encrypted environments – OSINT-based pen-testing can also help identify vulnerabilities related to personnel downloading ePHI from secure environments into unsecured ones. Specifically, a social engineering pen-testing strategy can use simulated phishing attacks to attempt to convince personnel to:
- Send PHI to known personnel via personal email.
- Send PHI to unknown personnel as a matter of business urgency.
- Download and print ePHI for purposes unrelated to business use.
- Gaps in access controls – A social engineering security testing strategy can also launch simulated vishing (voice phishing) or smishing (text message phishing) attacks as an attempt at convincing personnel to breach HIPAA compliance by:
- Divulging user passwords for organization accounts to “trusted” IT personnel over the phone or text
- Providing unknown callers with user IDs to networks containing ePHI
- Sharing reused passwords to personal accounts with individuals claiming to call from trusted government organizations
Using HIPAA to guide social engineering security testing can help identify gaps in network and application security, especially with the application of OSINT. Working with a HIPAA compliance advisor can help address and remediate the vulnerabilities identified by the social engineering pen-testing.
PCI DSS-Guided Pen-Testing for CHD Vulnerabilities
Organizations in the payment card industry (PCI) can also use the corresponding compliance framework, PCI Data Security Standards (PCI DSS), to guide social engineering penetration testing.
Specifically, PCI DSS Requirement 11.3 requires organizations to protect CHD environments by implementing industry-standard penetration testing methodologies. Along with other PCI DSS requirements, your organization can use Requirement 11.3 stipulations to conduct social engineering penetration testing and identify vulnerabilities in user awareness of CHD security protocols. The most common social engineering pen-testing strategies include:
- Phishing attacks that pretext personnel to divulge user account or password information for critical CHD environments (networks, systems, and applications)
- Vishing attacks that convince personnel to store CHD without legitimate business need or authorization
- Pretexting attacks that lure personnel into masquerading individuals physical access to CHD environments, such as server rooms or networked workstations
- Exploiting personnel knowledge of existing and unaddressed vulnerabilities (e.g., networks or systems awaiting patches, maintenance, or at end-of-life cycles) to gain unauthorized access to the CHD environments therein
The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Special Publication 800-115 provides a full scope of the strategies your organization could implement in conducting social engineering penetration testing for card payment transaction security. With the help of a managed compliance security advisor, your organization can ensure year-round PCI DSS compliance and protection for sensitive CHD.
Social Engineering Pen-Testing for High-Risk Applications
Besides conducting social engineering penetration testing for sensitive data, it is critical to pen-test for social engineering vulnerabilities to high-risk applications in your organization’s IT environment. Furthermore, as threat actors launch more sophisticated social engineering attacks targeting web applications, it is crucial to understand the nature of frequently used attack vectors.
Web Application Social Engineering Pen-Testing
Organizations can conduct social engineering penetration testing for web applications using guidance from documents such as the OWASP’s Top 10 list of web application vulnerabilities. Updated yearly, the OWASP list guides organizations on effectively minimizing security risks to web applications such as email and web browsers.
Using the OWASP guidance, your organization can conduct social engineering pen-testing based on the listed vulnerabilities, the top two of which include:
- Broken access control – Vulnerabilities in access control measures can compromise the integrity of data, networks, or systems connected to web applications. A social engineering pen-testing protocol can reveal access control vulnerabilities by deploying phishing attacks aimed at:
- Convincing personnel to elevate user privileges by divulging or changing user account passwords
- Prompting personnel to click on modified and compromised URLs
- Pretexting personnel to enter authentication information on websites via forced browsing
- Cryptographic failures – Failure to provide secure encryption for web application functions can compromise sensitive data (see above) and other critical system components. Social engineering pen-testing can identify cryptographic vulnerabilities by simulating:
- Phishing to convince personnel to reset passwords on unsecured web pages
- Smishing to prompt personnel to click on malicious links in text messages for password reset purposes
- Pretexting to convince personnel to grant individuals from the IT team physical or remote access to workstations to solve a web application issue
Web application social engineering pen-testing can help your organization minimize threats to critical web applications, systems, and related sensitive data.
Minimize Social Engineering Attack Vectors
Social engineering penetration testing can help your organization prevent sophisticated social engineering threats from materializing. With the help of a trusted security advisor and dedicated training, you can enhance your organization’s defenses against social engineering attacks.
To learn more about comprehensive security program development, contact RSI Security today