How hackers exploit 'the seven deadly sins'
By Prof Alan Woodward
Department of Computing, University of Surrey
(Courtesy of: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-20717773)
Cybercriminals are more than willing to exploit instincts
which make users vulnerable
The phenomenon of "social engineering" is behind
the vast majority of successful hacking.
This isn't the high tech wizardry of Hollywood but is a good,
old-fashioned confidence trick.
It's been updated for the modern age, and although modern
terms such as "phishing" and "smishing"
are used to describe the specific tricks used, they all rely
upon a set of human characteristics which, with due respect
to Hieronymus Bosch, you might picture as the "seven
deadly sins" of social engineering.
To fall for a confidence trick, or
worse, we assume others "must" have taken the necessary
steps to keep us secure.
Sadly this leads to a lack of awareness, and in the world
of the hacker that is fatal. When we stay in a hotel and we
programme our random number into the room safe to keep our
belongings secure, how many of us check to see if the manufacturers
override code has been left in the safe?
It's nearly always 0000 or 1234 so try it next time.
Humans are curious by nature. However, naive and uninformed
curiosity has caused many casualties. Criminals know we're
curious and they will try to lure us in. If we see an unfamiliar
door appear in a building we frequent, we all wonder where
We might be tempted to open it and find out, but in the online
world that might just be a trap waiting for an innocent user
to spring it. A colleague built a website that contained a
button that said Do Not Press, and was astonished to find
that the majority of people actually pressed it.
Be curious, but exercise a healthy degree of suspicion.
It is often thought of as a derogatory term, but we all suffer
from this sin. We make assumptions.
We take others at face value, especially outside of our areas
of expertise. Put a uniform on someone and we assume they
Give an email an official appearance by using the correct
logo and apparently coming from the correct email address,
and we might just assume it's real, regardless of how silly
its instructions might be.
All of this can be easily forged online, so make no assumptions.
We quite rightly all teach our children to be polite. However,
politeness does not mean you should not discriminate.
If you do not know something, or you feel something doesn't
feel quite right, ask. This principle is truer than ever in
the online world, where we are asked to interact with people
and systems in ways with which we are quite unfamiliar.
If someone phones you out of the blue and says they are from
your bank do you believe them?
No. Phone them back.
And by the way, use a mobile phone as landlines can remain
connected to the person who made the call in the first place
and so whilst you might think you're phoning the bank on a
valid number you're just talking to the person who called
Despite what we'd like to think we are all susceptible to
greed even though it might not feel like greed.
Since its inception, the very culture of the web has been
to share items for free.
Initially this was academic research, but as the internet
was commercialised in the mid-1990s, we were left with the
impression that we could still find something for nothing.
Nothing is ever truly free online. You have to remember that
if you're not the paying customer, you're very likely to be
the product. In the worst case, you might find that you have
taken something onto your machine that is far from what you
Many pieces of malware are actively downloaded by owners
unaware that the "free" product contains a nasty
payload, even if it also appears to do what you expected of
People are reluctant to ask strangers for ID, and in the online
world it is more important than ever to establish the credentials
of those whom you entrust with your sensitive information.
Do not let circumstances lead you to make assumptions about
For example, if someone from "IT support" calls
you and asks for your password so they can help fix your problem,
how do you know they haven't called everyone else in the building
first until they found you who has really got a problem?
This is a well-known attack. If someone has a problem with
proving who they are, you should immediately be suspicious.
Thinking before you act is possibly the most effective means
of protecting yourself online. It is all too easy to click
How many of us when reading an apparently valid link in an
email would bother to check whether the link is actually valid
or whether instead it takes you to a malicious site.
It's horribly easy to make links look valid so try hovering
your cursor over the link for a few seconds before clicking
to see what the real link is: the true link pops up if you
give it a moment.
As cynical as it may sound, the only answer is to practise
- Assume nothing
- Believe no one
- Check everything
With more shopping expected to be done online this year
than ever before, you should watch out for those that would
exploit the deadly sins.
Don't give criminals the chance to ruin your life, and remember
that a little bit of paranoia goes a long way online.
Alan Woodward is a visiting professor at the University
of Surrey's department of computing. He has worked for the
UK government and consults on issues including cyber-security,
covert communications and forensic computing.