Reconnaissance and Social Engineering Risks as Effects of Social Networking

Author Note: This paper is a "living reference work entry". Published first in 2014, now in second edition with minor changes to original content.

… not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” Matthew 15:11 (RSV)


For decades we have been concerned with how to stop viruses and worms from penetrating organizations and how to keep hackers out of organizations by luring them toward unsuspecting honeypots. In the mid-1990s Kevin Mitnick’s “dark-side” hacking demonstrated, and possibly even glamorized (Mitnick and Simon 2002), the need for organizations to invest in security equipment like intrusion detection systems and firewalls, at every level from perimeter to internal demilitarized zones (Mitnick and Simon 2005).

In the late 1990s, there was a wave of security attacks which stifled worker productivity. During these unexpected outages, employees would take long breaks queuing at the coffee machine, spend time cleaning their desk, and try to look busy shuffling paper in their in- and out-trays. It was clear by the downtime caused by malware hitting servers worldwide that corporations had begun to rely on intranets for content and workflow management so much and that employees would be left with very little to do when they were not connected. Nowadays, everything is online with respect to the service industry, and there is a known vulnerability in the requirement to be always connected. For example, you can cripple an organization if you take away their ability to accept electronic payments online, or render their content management system inaccessible due to denial of service attacks, or hack into a company’s webpage.

When the “Melissa” virus caught employees unaware in 1999, and was then followed by the “” worm in the same year, public folders had Microsoft Office files either deleted or corrupted. At the time, anecdotal stories indicated that some people (even whole groups) lost several weeks of work, after falling victim to the worm that had attacked their hard drive. This led many to seek backup copies of their files, only to find that the backups themselves were not activated (Michael 2003).

The moral of the story is that for decades we have been preoccupied with stopping data (executables, spam, false log-in attempts, and the like) from entering the organization when the real problem since the rise of broadband networks, 3G wireless, and more recently social media has been how to stop data from going out of the organization. While this sounds paradoxical, the major concern is not what data traffic comes into an organization, but what goes out of an organization that matters. We have become our own worst enemy when it comes to security in this online-everything world we live in.

In short, data leakage is responsible for most corporate damage, such as the loss of competitive information. You can secure a bucket and make it water tight, put a lid on it, even put a lock on the lid, but if that bucket has even a single tiny hole, its contents will leak out and cause spillage. Such is the dilemma of information security today – while we have become more aware of how to block out unwanted data, the greatest risk to our organization is that which leaves the organization – through the network, through storage devices, and via an employees’ online personal blog, even the spoken word. It is indeed what most security experts call the “human” factor (Michael 2008).

Reconnaissance of Social Networks for Social Engineering

Social Networking

The Millennials, also known as Gen Ys, have been the subject of great discussion by commentators. If we are to believe what researchers say about Gen Ys, then it is this generation that has voluntarily gone public with private data. This generation, propelled by advancements in broadband wireless, 3G mobiles, and cloud computing, is always connected and always sharing their sentiments and cannot get enough of the new apps. They are allegedly “transparent” with most of their data exchanges. Generally, Gen Ys do not think deeply about where the information they publish is stored, and they are focused on convenience solutions that benefit them with the least amount of rework required. They tend not to like to use products like Microsoft Office and would rather work on Google Drive using Google Docs collaboratively with their peers. They are less concerned with who owns information and more concerned with accessibility and collaboration.

Gen Ys are characterized with creating circles of friends online, doing everything digitally they possibly can, and blogging to their heart’s content. In fact, Google has recently released a study that has found that 80% of Gen Ys make up a new generation dubbed “Gen C.” Gen Cs are known as the YouTube generation and are focused on “creation, curation, connection, and community” (Google 2012). It is generally embraced in the literature that this is the generation that would rather use their personally purchased tools, devices, and equipment for work purposes because of the ease of carrying their “life” and “work” with them everywhere they go and the ease of melding their personal hobbies, interests, and professional skillsets with their workplace seamlessly (PWC 2012). Bring your own device (BYOD) is a movement that has emerged from this type of mind-set. It all has to do with customization and personalization, with working with settings that have been defined by the user and with lifelogging in a very audiovisual way. Above all the mantra of this generation is Open-Everything. The claim made by Gen Cs is that transparency is a great force to be reckoned with when it comes to accessibility. Gen Cs allegedly define their social network and are what they share, like, blog, and retweet. This is not without risk, despite that some criminologists have played down the fear as related to privacy and security concerns (David 2008).

Despite that online commentators regularly like to place us all into categories based on our age, most people we’ve spoken to through our research do not feel like any particular “generation.” Individuals like to think they are smart enough to exploit the technologies for what they need to achieve. People may generally choose not to embrace social networking for blogging purposes, for instance, but might see how the application can be put to good use within an institutional setting and educational framework. For this reason they might be heavy users of social networking applications like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google Latitude but also understand its shortcomings and the potential implications of providing a real name, gender, and date of birth, as well as other personal particulars like geotagged photos or live streaming.

This ability to gather and interpret cyber-physical data about individuals and their behaviors has a double-edged spur when related back to a place of work. On the one hand, we have data about someone’s personal encounters that can be placed in a context back to a place of employment (Dijst 2009). For instance, a social networking update might read: “In the morning, I met with Katina Michael, we spoke about putting a collaborative grant together on location-based tracking, and then I went and met Microsoft Research Labs to see if they were interested in working with us, and had lunch with (+person) (#microsoft) who is a senior software engineer.” This information is pretty innocent on its own but there are a lot of details in there that might be used for gathering information: (1) a real name, (2) a real e-mail address, (3) an identifiable position in an organization, (4) potentially links to an extended social network, and (5) possibly even a real physical location of where the meeting took place if the individual had a location-tracking feature switched on their mobile social network app. The underlying point here is that you might have nothing to fear by blogging or participating on social networks under your company identity, but your organization might have much to lose.

Social Reconnaissance

Despite that many of us don’t wish to admit it, we have from time to time conducted social reconnaissance online for any number of reasons. In the most basic of cases, you might be visiting a location you have not previously been to and you use Google Street View to take a quick look at what the dwelling looks like for identification purposes. You might also browse the web with your own name, dubbed “ego surfing,” to see how you have been cited, quoted, and tagged in images or generally what other people are saying about you. But businesses also are increasingly keeping their eye out on what is being said about their brand using automatic web alerts based on hashtags, to the extent that new schemes offering insurance for business reputation have begun to emerge. Now, my point here is not whether or not you conduct social reconnaissance on yourself, or your family, or your best friend, or even strangers that look enticing, but on what hackers out there might learn about you and your life and your organization by conducting both social and technical reconnaissance. Yes, indeed, if you didn’t know it already, there are people out there that will (1) spend all their work time looking up what you do (depending on who you are), (2) think about how that information they have gathered can be related back to your place of work, and (3) exploit that knowledge to conduct clever social engineering attacks (Hadnagy 2011).

Chris Hadnagy, founder of, was recently quoted as saying: “[i]nformation gathering is the most important part of any engagement. I suggest spending over 50 percent of the time on information gathering… Quality information and valid names, e-mails, phone number makes the engagement have a higher chance of success. Sometimes during information gathering you can uncover serious security flaws without even having to test, testing then confirms them” (Goodchild 2012).

It is for this reason that social engineers will focus on the company website, for instance, and build their attack plan off that. Dave Kennedy, CSO of Diebold, complements this idea by firsthand experience: “[a] lot of times, browsing through the company website, looking through LinkedIn are valuable ways to understand the company and its structure. We’ll also pull down PDF’s, Word documents, Excel spread sheets and others from the website and extract the metadata which usually tells us which version of Adobe or Word they were using and operating system that was used” (Goodchild 2012).

Most of us know of people who do not wish to be photographed and who have painstakingly attempted to un-tag themselves from a variety of images on social networks, who have tried to delete their online presence and be judged before an interview panel for the person they are today, not the person they were when MySpace or Facebook first came out. But what about the separate group of people who do not acknowledge that there is a fence between their work life and home life, accept personal e-mails on a work account, and then are vocal about everything that happens to them on a moment-by-moment basis with a disclaimer that reads: “anything you read on this page is my own personal opinion and not that of the organization I work for.” Some would say these individuals are terribly naïve and are probably not acting in accord with organizational policies. The disclaimer won’t help the company nor will it help them. Ethical hackers, who have built large empires around their tricks of the trade since the onset of social networking, have spent the last few years trying to educate us all – “data leakage is your biggest problem folks” not the fact that you have weak perimeters! You are, in other words, your own worst enemy because you divulge more than you can afford to, to the online world.

No one is discounting that there are clear benefits in making tacit knowledge explicit by recording it in one form or another, or openly sharing our research data in a way that is conducive to ethical practices, and making things more interoperable than what they are today – but the world keeps moving so fast that for the greater part people are becoming complacent with how they store their datasets and the repercussions of their actions. But the repercussions do exist, and they are real.

Social Engineering

Expert social engineers have never relied on very sophisticated ways of penetrating security systems. It is worth paying a visit to the social engineering toolkit (SET) at www.ocial-engineer.rg where you might learn a great deal about ethical hacking (Palmer 2001) and pentesting (Social-Engineer.Org 2012). Here social engineering tools are categorized as physical (e.g., cameras, GPS trackers, pen recorders, and radio-frequency bug kits), computer based (e.g., common user password profilers), and phone based (e.g., caller ID spoofing). In phase 1 of their premeditated attacks, social engineers are merely engaged in the practice of observation of the information we each put up for grabs willingly. And beyond “the information” itself, subjects and objects are also under surveillance by the social engineers as these might give further clues to the potential hack. It is when there is enough information that a social engineer will think about the next phase 2 which could mean dumpster diving and collecting as much hard copy and online evidence as possible (e.g., company website info). Social networks have given social engineers a whole new avenue of investigation. In fact, social networking will keep social engineers in fulltime work forever and ever unless we all get a lot smarter with how to use these applications.

In phase 3, the evidence gathered by the hacker is used to good practice as they claw their way deeper and deeper into organizational systems. It might mean having a few full names and position profiles of employees in a company and then using their “hacting” (hacking and acting) skills to get more and more data. Think about social engineers, building on steps and penetrating deeper and deeper into the administration of an organization. While we might think executives are the least targeted individuals, social engineers are brazen to ‘attack’ personal assistants of executives as well as operational staff. One of the problems associated with social networking is that executives casually give over their login and passwords to personal assistants to take care of their online reputations, thus becoming increasingly easier to manipulate and hijack these spaces and use them to as proof for a given action. When social engineers get that level of authority they require to circumvent systems or they are able to use a technical reconnaissance to exploit data found via social reconnaissance (or vice versa), then they can gain access to an organization’s network resources remotely, free to unleash cross-site scripting, man-in-the-middle attacks, SQL code injection, and the like.

Organizational Risks

We have thus come full circle on what social reconnaissance has to do with social networks. Social networking sites (SNS) provide social engineers with every bit of space they need to conduct their unethical hacking and their own penetration tests. You would not be the first person to admit that you have accepted a “friend” on a LinkedIn invitation without knowing who they are, or even caring who they are. Just another e-mail in the inbox to clear out, so pressing accept is usually a lot easier than pressing ignore and then delete or even blocking them for life.

Consider the problem of police in metropolitan forces creating LinkedIn profiles and accepting friends of friends on their public social network profile. What are the implications of this from a criminal perspective? Carrying the analogy of police further, what of the personal gadgets they carry? How many police are currently carrying e-mails on personal mobile phones that they should not be for security concerns? Or even worse, police who have their Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn profile always connected via their mobile phone? The police can be said to be rapidly introducing new policies to address these problems, but the problems regardless still exist for mainstream employees of large, medium, and even small organizations. The theft does not have to be complex like the stealing of software code or other intellectual property in designs and blueprints but as simple as the theft of competitive information like customer lead lists in a Microsoft Access database, or payroll data stored in MYOB, or even the physical device itself.

Penetration testing done periodically can be used as feedback into the development of a more robust information security life cycle that can aid those in charge of information governance to react proactively to help employees understand the implications of their practices (Bishop 2007). Trustwave 2012 advocates for four types of assessment and testing. The first is straightforward and traditional physical assessment. The second is client-side penetration testing which validates whether every staff member is adhering to policies. The third is business intelligence testing which is investigating how employees are using social networking, location-enabled devices, and mobile blogging to ensure that a company’s reputation is not at risk and to find out what data exists publically about an organization. And finally, red team testing is when a group of diverse subject matter experts try to penetrate a system reviewing security profiles independently.

No one would ever want to be the cause behind the ransacking of their organization’s online information above and beyond the web scraping technologies becoming widely available (Poggi et al. 2007). It would help if policies were enforceable within various settings but these too are difficult to monitor. How does one get the message across that while blocking unwanted traffic at the door is very important for an organization, what is even more important is noting what goes walkabout from inside the organization out? It will take some years for governance structures to adapt to this kind of thinking because the security industry and the media have previously been rightly focused on Denial of Service (DoS) attacks and botnets and the like (Papadimitriou and Garcia-Molina 2011). But it really is a chicken and egg problem – the more information we give out using social networking sites, the more we are giving impetus to DoS, DDoS, and the proliferation of botnets (Kartaltepe et al. 2010; Huber et al. 2009).


Possibly this entry may not have convinced employees that greater care should be taken about what they publish online, on personal blogs, or the pictures or footage post on lifelogs or on YouTube, but it may have convinced employees that the biggest problems today in security systems arise from the information that users post publicly in environments that rely on social networks. This information is just waiting to be harvested by people unsuspecting to users that they will probably never meet physically. Employers need to get their staff educated on company policies periodically and even review the policies they create no less than every 2 years. As an employer you should also be considering when the last time was that your organization performed a penetration test that considered new social networking applications. Individuals should extend this kind of pentesting to their own online profiles and review their own personal situation. Sure you might not have nothing to hide, but you might have a lot to lose.


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Footprinting; Hacker; Penetration testing; Reconnaissance; Risk; Security; Self-disclosure; Social engineering; Social media; Social reconnaissance; Vulnerabilities


Social reconnaissance: A preliminary paper-based or electronic web-based survey to gain personal information about a member or group in your community of interest. The member may be an individual friend or foe, a corporation, or the government

Social engineering: With respect to security, is the art of the manipulation of people while purporting to be someone other than your true self, thus duping them into performing actions or providing secret information

Data leakage: The deliberate or accidental outflow of private data from the corporation to the outside world, in a physical or virtual form

Online social networking: An online social network is a site that allows for the building of social networks among people who share common interests

Malware: The generic term for software that has a malicious purpose. Can take the form of a virus, worm, Trojan horse, and spyware

Citation: Katina Michael, "Reconnaissance and Social Engineering Risks as Effects of Social Networking", in Reda Alhajj and Jon Rokne, Encyclopedia of Social Network Analysis and Mining, 2017, pp. 1-7, DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-7163-9_401-1.