Wе humans are born with an inner drive to explore the nature of our surroundings. As young men, both Kevin Mitnick and I were intensely curious about the world and eager to prove ourselves. We were rewarded often in our attempts to learn new things, solve puzzles, and win at games. But at the same time, the world around us taught us rules of behavior that constrained our inner urge toward free exploration. For our boldest scientists and technological entrepreneurs, as well as for people like Kevin Mitnick, following this inner urge offers the greatest thrills, letting us accomplish things that others believe cannot be done.
Kevin Mitnick is one of the finest people I know. Ask him, and he will say forthrightly that what he used to do—social engineering—involves conning people. But Kevin is no longer a social engineer. And even when he was, his motive never was to enrich himself or damage others. That's not to say that there aren't dangerous and destructive criminals out there who use social engineering to cause real harm. In fact, that's exactly why Kevin wrote this book—to warn you about them.
The Art of Deception shows how vulnerable we all are—government, business, and each of us personally—to the intrusions of the social engineer. In this security-conscious era, we spend huge sums on technology to protect our computer networks and data. This book points out how easy it is to trick insiders and circumvent all this technological protection.
Whether you work in business or government, this book provides a powerful road map to help you understand how social engineers work and what you can do to foil them. Using fictionalized stories that are both entertaining and eye-opening, Kevin and coauthor Bill Simon bring to life the techniques of the social engineering underworld. After each story, they offer practical guidelines to help you guard against the breaches and threats they've described.
Technological security leaves major gaps that people like Kevin can help us close. Read this book and you may finally realize that we all need to turn to the Mitnick's among us for guidance.
— Steve Wozniak
Some hackers destroy people's files or entire hard drives; they're called crackers or vandals. Some novice hackers don't bother learning the technology, but simply download hacker tools to break into computer systems; they're called script kiddies. More experienced hackers with programming skills develop hacker programs and post them to the Web and to bulletin board systems. And then there are individuals who have no interest in the technology, but use the computer merely as a tool to aid them in stealing money, goods, or services.
Despite the media-created myth of Kevin Mitnick, I am not a malicious hacker.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
My path was probably set early in life. I was a happy-go-lucky kid, but bored. After my father split when I was three, my mother worked as a waitress to support us. To see me then—-an only child being raised by a mother who put in long, harried days on a sometimes-erratic schedule— would have been to see a kid on his own almost all his waking hours. I was my own babysitter.
Growing up in a San Fernando Valley community gave me the whole of Los Angeles to explore, and by the age of twelve I had discovered a way to travel free throughout the whole greater L.A. area. I realized one day while riding the bus that the security of the bus transfer I had purchased relied on the unusual pattern of the paper-punch that the drivers used to mark day, time, and route on the transfer slips. A friendly driver, answering my carefully planted question, told me where to buy that special type of punch.
The transfers are meant to let you change buses and continue a journey to your destination, but I worked out how to use them to travel anywhere I wanted to go for free. Obtaining blank transfers was a walk in the park.
The trash bins at the bus terminals were always filled with only-partly-used books of transfers that the drivers tossed away at the end of their shifts. With a pad of blanks and the punch, I could mark my own transfers and travel anywhere that L.A. buses went. Before long, I had all but memorized the bus schedules of the entire system. (This was an early example of my surprising memory for certain types of information; I can still, today, remember phone numbers, passwords, and other seemingly trivial details as far back as my childhood.)
Another personal interest that surfaced at an early age was my fascination with performing magic. Once I learned how a new trick worked, I would practice, practice, and practice some more until I mastered it. To an extent, it was through magic that I discovered the enjoyment in gaining secret knowledge.
From Phone Phreak to Hacker
My first encounter with what 1 would eventually learn to call social engineering came about during my High school years when I met another student who was caught up in a hobby called phone phreaking. Phone phreaking is a type of hacking that allows you to explore the telephone network by exploiting the phone systems and phone company employees. He showed me neat tricks he could do with a telephone, like obtaining any information the phone company had on any customer, and using a secret test number to make long-distance calls for free. (Actually it was free only to us. I found out much later that it wasn't a secret test number at all. The calls were, in fact, being billed to some poor company's MCI account.)
That was my introduction to social engineering—my kindergarten, so to speak. My friend and another phone phreaker I met shortly thereafter let me listen in as they each made pretext calls to the phone company. I heard the things they said that made them sound believable; I learned about different phone company offices, lingo, and procedures. But that "training" didn't last long; it didn't have to. Soon I was doing it all on my own, learning as I went, doing it even better than my first teachers.
The course my life would follow for the next fifteen years had been set.
In high school, one of my all-time favorite pranks was gaining unauthorized access to the telephone switch and changing the class of service of a fellow phone phreak. When he'd attempt to make a call from home, he'd get a message telling him to deposit a dime because the telephone company switch had received input that indicated he was calling from a pay phone.
I became absorbed in everything about telephones, not only the electronics, switches, and computers, but also the corporate organization, the procedures, and the terminology. After a while, I probably knew more about the phone system than any single employee. And I had developed my social engineering skills to the point that, at seventeen years old, I was able to talk most telco employees into almost anything, whether I was speaking with them in person or by telephone.
My much-publicized hacking career actually started when I was in high school. While I cannot describe the detail here, suffice it to say that one of the driving forces in my early hacks was to be accepted by the guys in the hacker group.
Back then we used the term hacker to mean a person who spent a great deal of time tinkering with hardware and software, either to develop more efficient programs or to bypass unnecessary steps and get the job done more quickly. The term has now become a pejorative, carrying the meaning of "malicious criminal." In these pages I use the term the way I have always used it—-in its earlier, more benign sense.
After high school I studied computers at the Computer Learning Center in Los Angeles. Within a few months, the school's computer manager realized I had found vulnerability in the operating system and gained full administrative privileges on their IBM minicomputer. The best computer experts on their teaching staff couldn't figure out how I had done this. In what may have been one of the earliest examples of "hire the hacker," I was given an offer I couldn't refuse: Do an honors project to enhance the school's computer security, or face suspension for hacking the system. Of course, I chose to do the honors project, and ended up graduating cum laude with honors.
Becoming a Social Engineer
Some people get out of bed each morning dreading their daily work routine at the proverbial salt mines. I've been lucky enough to enjoy my work. In particular, you can't imagine the challenge, reward, and pleasure I had in the time I spent as a private investigator. I was honing my talents in the performance art called social engineering (getting people to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do for a stranger) and being paid for it.
For me it wasn't difficult becoming proficient in social engineering. My father's side of the family had been in the sales field for generations, so the art of influence and persuasion might have been an inherited trait. When you combine that trait with an inclination for deceiving people, you have the profile of a typical social engineer.
You might say there are two specialties within the job classification of con artist. Somebody who swindles and cheats people out of their money belongs to one sub-specialty, the grifier. Somebody who uses deception, influence, and persuasion against businesses, usually targeting their information, belongs to the other sub-specialty, the social engineer. From the time of my bus-transfer trick, when I was too young to know there was anything wrong with what I was doing, I had begun to recognize a talent for finding out the secrets I wasn't supposed to have. I built on that talent by using deception, knowing the lingo, and developing a well-honed skill of manipulation.
One way I worked on developing the skills of my craft, if I may call it a craft, was to pick out some piece of information I didn't really care about and see if I could talk somebody on the other end of the phone into providing it, just to improve my skills. In the same way I used to practice my magic tricks, I practiced pretexting. Through these rehearsals, I soon found that I could acquire virtually any information I targeted.
As I described in Congressional testimony before Senators Lieberman and Thompson years later:
/ have gained unauthorized access to computer systems at some of the largest corporations on the planet, and have successfully penetrated some of the most resilient computer systems ever developed. I have used both technical and nontechnical means to obtain the source code to various operating systems and telecommunications devices to study their vulnerabilities and their inner workings.
All of this activity was really to satisfy my own curiosity; to see what I could do; and find out secret information about operating systems, cell phones, and anything else that stirred my curiosity.
I've acknowledged since my arrest that the actions I took were illegal, and that I committed invasions of privacy.
My misdeeds were motivated by curiosity. I wanted to know as much as I could about how phone networks worked and the ins-and-outs of computer security. I went from being a kid who loved to perform magic tricks to becoming the world's most notorious hacker, feared by corporations and the government. As I reflect back on my life for the last 30 years, 1 admit I made some extremely poor decisions, driven by my curiosity, the desire to learn about technology, and the need for a good intellectual challenge.
I'm a changed person now. I'm turning my talents and the extensive knowledge I've gathered about information security and social engineering tactics to helping government, businesses, and individuals prevent, detect, and respond to information-security threats.
This book is one more way that I can use my experience to help others avoid the efforts of the malicious information thieves of the world. I think you will find the stones enjoyable, eye-opening, and educational.
This book contains a wealth of information about information security and social engineering. To help you find your way, here's a quick look at how this book is organized:
In Part 1 I'll reveal security's weakest link and show you why you and your company are at risk from social engineering attacks.
In Part 2 you'll see how social engineers toy with your trust, your desire to be helpful, your sympathy, and your human gullibility to get what they want. Fictional stories of typical attacks will demonstrate that social engineers can wear many hats and many faces. If you think you've never encountered one, you're probably wrong. Will you recognize a scenario you've experienced in these stories and wonder if you had a brush with social engineering? You very well might. But once you've read Chapters 2 through 9, you'll know how to get the upper hand when the next social engineer comes calling.
Part 3 is the part of the book where you see how the social engineer ups the ante, in made-up stories that show how he can step onto your corporate premises, steal the kind of secret that can make or break your company, and thwart your hi-tech security measures. The scenarios in this section will make you aware of threats that range from simple employee revenge to cyber terrorism. If you value the information that keeps your business running and the privacy of your data, you'll want to read Chapters 10 through 14 from beginning to end.
It's important to note that unless otherwise stated, the anecdotes in this book are purely fictional.
In Part 4 I talk the corporate talk about how to prevent successful social engineering attacks on your organization. Chapter 15 provides a blueprint for a successful security-training program. And Chapter 16 might just save your neck—it's a complete security policy you can customize for your organization and implement right away to keep your company and information safe.
Finally, I've provided a Security at a Glance section, which includes checklists, tables, and charts that summarize key information you can use to help your employees foil a social engineering attack on the job. These tools also provide valuable information you can use in devising your own security-training program.
Throughout the book you'll also find several useful elements: Lingo boxes provide definitions of social engineering and computer hacker terminology; Mitnick Messages offer brief words of wisdom to help strengthen your security strategy; and notes and sidebars give interesting background or additional information.