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Definition of Social Engineering: The Art and Science of Manipulation

Definition of Social Engineering: The Art and Science of Manipulation

In the rapidly evolving landscape of cybersecurity, the term "social engineering" has become increasingly prevalent. Social engineering represents a sophisticated practice that blends the art of manipulation with the science of psychology to deceive individuals and exploit organizations. Understanding the fundamental principles of social engineering is crucial for enhancing your defenses against these crafty attacks. In this blog post, we will examine the definition of social engineering, explore various techniques employed by social engineers, and offer insights into protecting yourself and your organization from such threats.

What is Social Engineering?

Social engineering is a broad term encompassing any activity where an individual or group manipulates another person into divulging confidential information or performing actions that compromise security. Unlike traditional hacking techniques that rely on code and technical vulnerabilities, social engineering leverages human vulnerabilities.

The essence of social engineering lies in its foundation on psychological manipulation. Social engineers use a variety of tactics to exploit emotions such as fear, curiosity, or trust to coerce individuals into revealing sensitive information or taking specific actions. Essentially, it is the art of convincing people to break normal security procedures without realizing it.

Common Techniques in Social Engineering

To fully comprehend the concept, it's essential to be familiar with the different methods social engineers utilize:


Phishing is one of the most notorious and widespread social engineering techniques. It involves sending fraudulent emails or messages that appear to come from reputable sources. These messages often contain links or attachments designed to trick recipients into providing sensitive information, such as login credentials or financial details. Effective application security testing (AST) can identify vulnerabilities in your systems that phishing attacks might exploit.

Spear Phishing

A more targeted form of phishing, spear phishing, involves highly personalized messages aimed at specific individuals or organizations. The attackers thoroughly research their targets to make the messages appear genuinely relevant and credible. This makes it more likely that the victim will fall for the ruse.


Pretexting involves creating a fabricated scenario or pretext to obtain information or gain access to a system. The attacker might pose as a coworker, police officer, investigator, or any other authority figure to build trust and persuade the target to comply.


Baiting leverages the curiosity or greed of individuals by promising some form of reward or incentive. This could involve leaving physical media like USB drives in public places, with labels indicating they contain valuable information. Once the victim plugs the device into their computer, malicious software is installed, providing the attacker with access.

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo attacks are based on the promise of a benefit in exchange for information or access. For example, an attacker might impersonate a technical support representative, offering assistance but requiring the victim to disable their security software or reveal their login credentials as part of the support process.


Also known as "piggybacking," tailgating involves an attacker seeking physical access to a restricted area by following a legitimate person without their knowledge. The attacker might ask the person to hold the door open or simply walk in closely behind them.

The Psychological Principles Behind Social Engineering

Successful social engineering attacks are based on key psychological principles that exploit natural human tendencies. Understanding these principles can help you identify and resist manipulative tactics.


People tend to comply with requests from authority figures. Social engineers often impersonate figures of authority, such as senior executives or law enforcement officials, to manipulate their targets into divulging information or performing actions.

Social Proof

Social proof refers to the human inclination to conform to the actions or behaviors of others. Attackers exploit this by creating fake testimonials, reviews, or messages that seem to show what others are doing, to make the target more likely to comply.


Scarcity tactics leverage the fear of missing out (FOMO) by suggesting that something is available for a limited time only. This creates a sense of urgency and can pressure individuals into making quick decisions without proper scrutiny.


People are more likely to comply with requests from individuals they like or find attractive. Social engineers often employ charm or flattery to build rapport and make their targets more amenable to their requests.

Commitment and Consistency

The principle of commitment and consistency states that people are more likely to follow through with actions that are consistent with their previous commitments. Social engineers use this by getting the target to agree to a small, innocuous request, and then gradually escalating their demands.


Reciprocity is the human tendency to feel obligated to return a favor. Attackers might use this principle by providing some form of assistance or gift, making the target feel indebted and more likely to comply with subsequent requests.

Real-World Examples of Social Engineering Attacks

To illustrate the impact and effectiveness of social engineering, let's explore some real-world examples:

The RSA Breach (2011)

In March 2011, attackers targeted RSA, the security division of EMC Corporation, with a sophisticated spear-phishing campaign. Employees received emails with subject lines such as "2011 Recruitment Plan" containing malicious attachments. When opened, these attachments installed backdoor trojans on RSA's network, compromising sensitive data related to their SecurID tokens.

Target Data Breach (2013)

A monumental social engineering attack led to the Target data breach in 2013, affecting over 40 million customer credit and debit card accounts. Attackers gained access to Target's network by using stolen credentials from a third-party vendor. The breach underscores the importance of third party assurance (TPA) and strong vendor risk management (VRM).

Ubiquiti Networks Incident (2015)

Ubiquiti Networks suffered a significant financial blow of over $46 million in 2015 due to a social engineering scam. Attackers impersonated Ubiquiti executives and initiated fraudulent wire transfer requests. This brazen attack highlights the risks associated with inadequate verification protocols and the necessity for comprehensive security measures.

Protecting Against Social Engineering

Given the sophistication of social engineering attacks, proactive measures must be taken to safeguard against them. Here are some strategies to consider:

Education and Training

Regular education and training programs can arm employees with the knowledge to recognize and respond to social engineering threats. Training should cover the common techniques used by attackers, the psychological principles they exploit, and the appropriate response protocols.

Implementing Strong Policies

Organizations should establish and enforce robust security policies. For example, employ strict verification procedures for sensitive actions such as wire transfers, restrict access to critical systems, and ensure compliance with security best practices among third-party vendors through TPRM and TPA.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Implementing multi-factor authentication adds an extra layer of security by requiring multiple forms of verification before granting access. This makes it more challenging for attackers to gain unauthorized access, even if they have obtained login credentials through social engineering.

Regular Security Assessments

Conduct regular security assessments, including penetration tests, web application testing, and vulnerability scans. These assessments can identify and address potential vulnerabilities that social engineers might exploit.

Behavior Monitoring

Keeping an eye on user behavior can help in identifying suspicious activities early. Solutions like Managed SOC, SOC-as-a-Service, SOCaaS, MDR, EDR, XDR, and MSSP provide advanced monitoring and threat detection capabilities, significantly enhancing incident response times.

Creating an Incident Response Plan

Having a well-defined incident response plan ensures your organization can quickly and effectively respond to social engineering attacks. The plan should include clear communication channels, roles and responsibilities, and steps for containment, eradication, and recovery.


Social engineering, the art and science of manipulation, is a significant threat in the modern cybersecurity landscape. It preys on human nature and psychological principles to achieve its nefarious goals. By understanding the definition of social engineering and the various techniques employed, you can better prepare yourself and your organization to combat these threats. Through education, robust security policies, regular assessments, and advanced monitoring solutions, you can build a resilient defense against the ever-evolving tactics of social engineers.