The Emerging Attention Attack Surface

A well-known truth among security experts that humans are the weakest link and social engineering is the least resistant path for cyber attackers. The classic definition of social engineering is deception aimed to make people do what you want them to do. In the world of cybersecurity, it can be mistakenly opening an email attachment plagued with malicious code. The definition of social engineering is broad and does not cover deception methods. The classic ones are temporary confidence building, wrong decisions due to lack of attention, and curiosity traps.

Our lives have become digital. An overwhelming digitization wave with ever exciting new digital services and products improving our lives better. The only constant in this significant change is our limited supply of attention. As humans, we have limited time, and due to that our attention is a scarce resource. A resource every digital supplier wants to grab more and more of it. In a way, we evolved into attention optimization machines where we continuously decide what is interesting and what is not, and we can ask the digital services to notify us when something of interest takes place in the future. The growing attention scarcity drove many technological innovations such as personalization on social networks. The underlying mechanism of attention works by directing our brainpower on a specific piece of information where initially we gather enough metadata to decide whether the new information is worthy of our attention or not. Due to the exploding amount of temptations for our attention, the time it takes us to decide whether something is interesting or not is getting shorter within time, which makes it much more selective and faster to decide whether to skip or not. This change in behavior creates an excellent opportunity for cyber attackers which refine their ways in social engineering; a new attack surface is emerging. The initial attention decision-making phase allows attackers to deceive by introducing artificial but highly exciting and relevant baits at the right time, an approach that results in a much higher conversion ratio for the attackers. The combination of attention optimization, shortening decision times, and highly interesting fake pieces of information set the stage for a new attack vector potentially highly effective.

Some examples:

Email?? An email with a subject line and content that discusses something that has timely interest to you. For example, you changed your Linkedin job position today, and then you got an email one hour later with another job offer which sounds similar to your new job. When you change jobs your attention to the career topic is skyrocketing – I guess very few can resist the temptation to open such an email.

Social Networks Mentions?? Imagine you?ve twitted that you are going for a trip to Washington and someone with a fake account replies to you with a link about delays in flights, wouldn?t you click on it? If the answer is yes, you could get infected by the mere click on the link.

Google Alerts?? So you want to track mentions of yourself on the internet, and you set a google alert to send you an email whenever a new webpage appears on the net with your name on it. Now imagine getting such a new email mentioning you in a page with a juicy excerpt, wouldn?t you click on the link to read the whole page and see what they wrote about you?

All these examples promise high conversion ratios because they are all relevant and come in a timely fashion. If you are targeted at the busy part of the day the chances, you will click on something like that are high.

One of the main contributors to the emergence of this attack surface is the growth in personal data that is spread out on different networks and services. This public information serves as a sound basis for attackers to understand what is interesting for you and when.