Over the past 40 years, our world has become increasingly connected. These connections have enabled major advances in national security from pervasive real-time intelligence and communications to optimal logistics. With this connectivity has come the threat of cyber attacks on both military systems and critical infrastructure. While we focus the vast majority of our security efforts on protecting computers and networks, more than 80 percent of cyber attacks and over 70 percent of those from nation states are initiated by exploiting humans rather than computer or network security flaws. To build secure cyber systems, it is necessary to protect not only the computers and networks that make up these systems but their human users as well.
We call attacks on humans “social engineering” because they manipulate or “engineer” users into performing desired actions or divulging sensitive information. The most general social engineering attacks simply attempt to get unsuspecting internet users to click on malicious links. More focused attacks attempt to elicit sensitive information, such as passwords or private information from organizations or steal things of value from particular individuals by earning unwarranted trust.
These attacks always have an “ask,” a desired behavior that the attacker wants to induce from the victim. To do this, they need trust from the victim, which is typically earned through interaction or co-opted via a spoofed or stolen identity. Depending on the level of sophistication, these attacks will go after individuals, organizations, or wide swathes of the population.
Social engineering attacks work because it is difficult for users to verify each and every communication they receive. Moreover, verification requires a level of technical expertise that most users lack. To compound the problem, the number of users that have access to privileged information is often large, creating a commensurately large attack surface.
The Active Social Engineering Defense (ASED) program aims to develop the core technology to enable the capability to automatically identify, disrupt, and investigate social engineering attacks. If successful, the ASED technology will do this by actively detecting attacks, intervening in communications between users and potential attackers, and coordinating investigations into the source of the attacks.
Additional information is available in the ASED BAA.
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