Navigating the Digital Minefield: The Rise of AI-Driven Social Engineering

April 4, 2024
min read
Share this post


As we delve deeper into the digital age, the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and cybersecurity presents both groundbreaking opportunities and unprecedented challenges. Among these challenges, social engineering stands out as a particularly insidious threat. Social engineering attacks exploit human psychology, rather than technological vulnerabilities, to gain unauthorised access to personal information, corporate data, or secure systems. With the advent of sophisticated AI technologies, these attacks have evolved, becoming increasingly sophisticated and difficult to detect.

"Only amateurs attack machines; professionals target people." Bruce Schneier, Security Expert and Author

Understanding social engineering

Social engineering is predicated on the manipulation of trust. Attackers impersonate individuals or entities that their victims trust, creating scenarios that compel the victims to voluntarily surrender sensitive information, access, or finances. Techniques such as phishing, pretexting, baiting, and quid pro quo are common, leveraging the human propensity to trust and to help. In the context of AI's rise, these tactics have been significantly enhanced. AI can now create convincingly fake videos (deepfakes), voice imitations, and personalised text communications, elevating the risk and potential impact of social engineering attacks.

98% of cyber attacks involve some form of social engineering

The AI factor

The integration of AI into social engineering introduces a dual-edged sword. On the offensive side, attackers utilise AI to automate and refine their attacks. For example, AI algorithms can sift through social media and other online platforms to gather personal information, which is then used to craft highly personalised and convincing phishing emails. On the defensive front, AI and machine learning technologies offer promising tools for detecting and mitigating these threats. They can analyse communication patterns, identify anomalies, and flag potential social engineering attempts, often in real-time.

Examples of social engineering

Phishing emails

Emails that mimic legitimate organisations, such as banks or service providers, request urgent action, typically involving clicking a link or opening an attachment. Look out for misspellings, generic greetings (e.g., "Dear Customer" instead of your name), and email addresses that closely resemble but don't exactly match the official ones.

Phishing remains one of the most popular social engineering techniques; one study identified that phishing attacks were involved in 36% of all data breaches.


Attackers create a fabricated scenario (pretext) to obtain your personal information. They might pose as survey conductors, bank officials, or IT support, asking detailed questions under the guise of verification or support. Be wary of unsolicited calls asking for sensitive information or actions you didn't initiate.


Baiting involves offering something enticing to trick someone into a security mistake, like malware hidden in downloadable content or USB drives left in public places labelled with intriguing titles. Always question the origin of unexpected or too-good-to-be-true offers, especially when they involve downloading or accessing something.

Quid pro quo

Similar to baiting but involves a direct offer of exchange. For example, attackers might offer assistance or free software in exchange for access to your computer or credentials. Be sceptical of unsolicited offers of help or services, particularly when they request access to personal or company systems.

"Companies spend millions of dollars on firewalls, encryption, and secure access devices, and it’s money wasted; none of these measures address the weakest link in the security chain: the people who use, administer, operate, and account for computer systems that contain protected information." Kevin Mitnick, Cybersecurity Consultant, Author, and Former Hacker


An attacker seeks to gain unauthorised access to restricted areas by following someone who has legitimate access. Common in office buildings or secure facilities, be alert for individuals who attempt to enter secure areas without the proper credentials, often by asking for the door to be held open.

Spear phishing

A more targeted version of phishing, where the attacker uses personal information to craft a convincing message, making it appear relevant and trustworthy. These emails might reference recent transactions, work projects, or personal interests. Always verify the authenticity of messages that request sensitive information, even if they seem to know about you or your activities.

Vishing (voice phishing)

Conducted over the phone, vishing often involves the caller pretending to be from a trusted company or institution, seeking personal or financial information. Common red flags include callers asking for passwords, PINs, or other sensitive information, often with a sense of urgency or threat.

Smishing (SMS phishing)

Similar to phishing but conducted via SMS. These messages might prompt you to click a suspicious link, claiming to be from a bank, courier, or tax office, often related to urgent issues requiring immediate action. Look out for messages from unknown numbers or that create unnecessary urgency to act.

Staying safe: advanced tips and best practices

Comprehensive education and training

Beyond basic awareness, individuals and organisations must engage in comprehensive education on the nuances of AI-enhanced social engineering attacks. This includes understanding the technology behind AI and the psychology of manipulation tactics.

Critical thinking and verification

Encourage a culture of critical thinking and verification. This means not just verifying suspicious emails, but also being sceptical of unusual requests via phone, social media, or even in person.

Privacy management

In an era where personal information is gold, managing one's digital footprint is crucial. This involves regularly auditing social media privacy settings and being cautious about the information shared on public platforms.

Advanced security protocols

Utilise AI-driven security solutions for enhanced detection capabilities. Additionally, organisations should implement robust security protocols, including secure VPNs, end-to-end encryption for sensitive communications, and advanced endpoint protection.

Small business employees experience 350% more social engineering attacks compared to employees at enterprise-level companies.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) and beyond

While MFA is essential, consider employing even more stringent authentication methods for accessing sensitive systems and information, such as biometric verification.

Incident response and reporting

Develop a sophisticated incident response plan that includes protocols for dealing with social engineering attacks. This should encompass immediate measures to contain and mitigate the attack, as well as long-term strategies for recovery and reinforcement of defences.

Regular updates and adaptation

The landscape of AI and social engineering is continually evolving. Regular updates to security protocols, software, and employee training are vital to keep pace with new threats.

Promote psychological safety

Encourage an environment where employees feel safe reporting potential social engineering attempts, without fear of blame or retribution. This can significantly enhance an organisation's ability to respond to and mitigate these threats promptly.

"Cybercrime is the greatest threat to every company in the world." Ginni Rometty, Former CEO of IBM


As AI continues to evolve, so do the tactics of social engineers. By staying informed and using the latest security technologies, we can protect ourselves and our organisations from these sophisticated attacks. Remember, it's not just about protecting data; it's about building a culture of cybersecurity awareness and resilience that can adapt to the ever-evolving digital landscape.

If you want to chat about how to encourage cyber awareness within your organisation, or talk about digital transformation generally, don't hesitate to get in touch!

Share this post
Cyber Security
Digital Transformation
Co-Founder, Yopla
Some of the clients we've worked with...