Cyber espionage lure catches some big fish

An undercover cybersecurity expert demonstrates the national security risks posed by social media in government

Oh, the humanity!

One might hope that the men and women employed by the military, the intelligence community and government contractors would be wiser than most when it comes to online scams.

You'd think this would especially be the case with a so-called social engineering scam — one in which an individual assumes a fake identity on Facebook and other social media sites in hopes of finding well-placed “friends” who might inadvertently reveal valuable intelligence data.

That’s the kind of stuff they warn against in Social Media 101.

And yet cybersecurity expert Thomas Ryan — posing as Robin Sage, an attractive “cyber threat analyst” working at the Navy’s Network Warfare Command — managed to find more than 600 friends or followers across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Ryan’s trap snared employees at some secretive places, including the National Reconnaissance Office, the Navy, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, according to various media accounts.

“I wanted to see how much intell you could gather from a person just by lurking on a social networking site,” Ryan told Jaikumar Vijayan at Computerworld.

People accepted his/her online overtures despite some obvious red flags, such as the fact that Robin claimed to have 10 years of experience in cybersecurity despite being only 25 years old. And they began sharing information that, if Ryan had not been one of the good guys trying to make a point, could have compromised national security, such as troop locations and movement.

“People also sought Robin’s professional advice, invited her to dinners, and offered her job opportunities,” writes Petty Officer 2nd Class Elliott Fabrizio at the Defense Department’s "Armed with Science" blog. “Not bad in this economy, especially for a person who doesn’t even exist.”

Which just goes to show: Human nature trumps training more often than we would like to think.

“It is not the first time ‘white-hat’ hackers have carried out such a social engineering experiment," writes Shaun Waterman at the Washington Times. "But military and intelligence security specialists [said] the exercise reveals important vulnerabilities in the use of social networking by people in the national security field.”

 

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