The Human Firewall – How Social Engineering Breaches Your Defenses

Imagine, for a moment, you’re a criminal scheming to breach a highly secured target. It could be a bank brimming with cash, a boutique filled with luxury items, or perhaps you’re a hacker eyeing the digital vaults of a health insurance company or an e-commerce giant. In orchestrating your intrusion, two primary avenues present themselves for exploitation. The first is technological defenses, such as the security systems, or the human element. The other is the employees and users that interact with these entities daily. For individuals without highly specialized technical skills, humans are the proven path of least resistance.

It is a lot easier to have someone on the inside let you in than to break down the defenses. This is the purpose of social engineering attacks. Social engineering is used by external attackers to manipulate insiders into unwittingly granting them access. Social engineering works because it leverages the emotional and cognitive biases that influence human behavior. Attackers exploit our natural inclination to trust by impersonating a high-ranking executive, IT support professional or trusted vendor. They leverage the urgency of a situation to prompt an immediate action such as the clicking on a link to avoid some type of negative consequence.

While unpredictability of humans can certainly be advantageous in situations, the consistent and thorough approach of machines often makes them less prone to security lapses. Machines follow a set discipline, adhering strictly to programmed instructions.  For example, they consistently apply security updates and patches in line with predefined policies, while an employee may “have better things to do” and procrastinate the operation. Humans on the other hand become careless in their security hygiene or perceive security protocols as inconvenient barriers. Just as prisoners learn how to manipulate the most vulnerable guards when planning an escape, experienced threat actors know what strings to pull to convince susceptible users to do what they want.

The Statistics Tell the Story

The effectiveness of social engineering is evident, as its success only leads to more attempts. The numbers clearly illustrate why social engineering remains a prevalent threat:

These statistics underscore the critical need for ongoing vigilance and comprehensive cybersecurity education to counteract the sophisticated tactics employed by attackers. Strengthening human defenses is as crucial as fortifying technical barriers to mitigate the risk posed by social engineering.

BEC Attacks are a Billion $ Crime

Perhaps there is no bigger target on their back than the CEO. CEOs get things done because of their leadership and authority. Consequently, someone impersonating a CEO can influence others in the organization to get things done as well, such as wiring large amounts of money to a fictious supply vendor or business partner. These fraudulent requests are typically conveyed through emails meticulously crafted to mimic the CEO’s communication style and compel the recipient to bypass usual protocols due to the purported urgency or confidentiality of the matter. A single BEC attack can lead to substantial financial losses for a company, making it the second most costly type of cybercrime in 2022, with 21,489 complaints, BEC attacks resulting in losses totaling $2.9 billion.

Social Engineering and Lateral Attacks

While targeting senior executives is clearly advantageous for attackers due to their access and authority, the rationale behind attacking lower-level employees might not be immediately apparent. However, gaining the credentials of even one such employee can serve as a critical foothold, enabling attackers to move laterally across an organization’s network. From there, attackers can conduct reconnaissance to pinpoint valuable assets and targets and strategize to compromise accounts with higher privileges, with their final objective to expand their access across the network more extensively. This methodical progression underscores the strategic value of initially targeting individuals at any level within the organization.

Solutions to Combat Social Engineering Attacks

Let’s face it. No one wants to have that ‘now what’ feeling upon realizing they clicked on something they shouldn’t have. Fortunately, there are some effective strategies available today that businesses can use to protect themselves against social engineering attacks. Multifactor Authentication (MFA) has emerged as a highly effective method for enhancing the security of user credentials against straightforward brute force attacks. Many organizations are adopting zero trust models that eliminate implicit trust and require continuous verification for every access attempt, thus minimizing the chance of unauthorized access through compromised credentials.

Continuous monitoring of network activity ensures that any unusual or suspicious behavior is detected in real-time. This enables security teams to swiftly identify and mitigate potential threats before they inflict substantial harm. However, the key is to manage this without overwhelming security teams with excessive alerts that could impede their response capabilities. This balance is partially achieved through behavioral analysis, which leverages an understanding of typical user behavior to pinpoint anomalies that suggest a security risk. Advances in AI have facilitated the development of systems capable of such nuanced analysis. It is important to note however, that hackers are also leveraging AI to sophisticate their strategies, presenting an ongoing challenge in the cybersecurity landscape.


Realizing how vulnerable users can be to exploitation if unprepared is no doubt unsettling. Unfortunately, AI is only increasing the effectiveness of phishing attacks and other social engineering tactics. Yes, you can’t have a network without a firewall system for basic protection, but ensuring business continuity demands a robust human firewall as well.

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