Social engineering is a term that describes a non-technical kind of intrusion that relies heavily on human interaction and often involves tricking other people to break normal security procedures.
A social engineer runs what used to be called a "con game." For example, a person using social engineering to break into a computer network might try to gain the confidence of an authorized user and get them to reveal information that compromises the network's security. Social engineers often rely on the natural helpfulness of people as well as on their weaknesses. They might, for example, call the authorized employee with some kind of urgent problem that requires immediate network access. Appeal to vanity, appeal to authority, appeal to greed, and old-fashioned eavesdropping are other typical social engineering techniques.
Social engineering is a component of many, if not most, types of exploits. Virus writers use social engineering tactics to persuade people to run malware-laden email attachments, phishers use social engineering to convince people to divulge sensitive information, and scareware vendors use social engineering to frighten people into running software that is useless at best and dangerous at worst.
Another aspect of social engineering relies on people's inability to keep up with a culture that relies heavily on information technology. Social engineers rely on the fact that people are not aware of the value of the information they possess and are careless about protecting it. Frequently, social engineers will search dumpsters for valuable information, memorize access codes by looking over someone's shoulder (shoulder surfing), or take advantage of people's natural inclination to choose passwords that are meaningful to them but can be easily guessed.
Security experts propose that as our culture becomes more dependent on information, social engineering will remain the greatest threat to any security system. Prevention includes educating people about the value of information, training them to protect it, and increasing people's awareness of how social engineers operate.