Hundreds of people in the information security, military and intelligence fields recently found themselves with egg on their faces after sharing personal information with a fictitious Navy cyberthreat analyst named "Robin Sage," whose profile on prominent social networking sites was created by a security researcher to illustrate the risks of social networking.
In a conversation with Computerworld, Thomas Ryan, co-founder of Provide Security, said he used a few photos to portray the fictional Sage on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as an attractive, somewhat flirty cybergeek, with degrees from MIT and a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire. Then he established connections with some 300 men and women from the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, information security companies and government contractors.
The goal, said Ryan, was to determine how effective social networking sites can be in conducting covert intelligence-gathering activities.
Despite some patently obvious red flags -- such as noting that the 25-year-old Sage had worked professionally for 10 years -- the scheme worked. The connections to Sage, who was depicted as a real-life Abby Scuito, a fictional character in CBS's NCIS television series, were established in less than a month. Many friends freely shared personal information and photos, invited the fictional threat analyst to conferences and asked her to review documents. Some "friends" at major companies, including Google and Lockheed Martin, even expressed interest in hiring her, he noted.
A security researcher created a fake online profile for a fictional cyberthreat analyst named "Robin Sage."
Had Sage really been a foreign agent, she would have had access to a lot of very useful information, said Ryan, who is scheduled to present his findings next week at the BlackHat security conference in Las Vegas. Excerpts from his interview with Computerworld follow:
What prompted you to conduct the experiment? One of the biggest drivers was all the talk about cyberwarfare and cyberespionage -- and what's real and what's not real. I wanted to see how much intel you could gather from a person just by lurking on a social networking site. I [also] wanted to see who was most susceptible to clicking. I wanted to see how fast this thing would propagate. One of the things I found was that MIT and St. Paul's [prep school] were very cliquey. If they don't remember seeing you, they are not going to click. You had less of a chance of penetrating those groups than the actual intel and security communities.
How many connections and friends did Robin Sage make? On Facebook, 226; on LinkedIn, 206; and on Twitter, 204. The connections on Facebook were security and military, LinkedIn was mainly security and intel, and Twitter was mostly hackers.
Did Sage mostly seek out these friends, or were they more likely to make the first move? It was a combination of both. I did approach a few people, [mostly] from the security industry. They had the most connections. They are the speakers, the ones that are always sociable.
What type of information can one get through such connections? Pretty much everything. I had access to e-mail and bank accounts. I saw patterns in the kind of friends they had. The LinkedIn profiles would show patterns of new business relationships.
Why do you think Sage was so successful at making new connections? Because she was an attractive girl. It definitely had to do with looks.
Were most of the connections male? It wasn't all men. The male versus female split was 82% to 18%. The highest number of women were from the intelligence community. The only women who were there from the security community were people promoting conferences and stuff like that.
Do you think a fictional male character would have been as successful in attracting "friends"? It depends on who the male was and how he was portrayed.
What did Facebook do when they discovered what was going on? Facebook shut down the Robin page and my personal page. They said, due to security reasons, I am not allowed to use Facebook again. LinkedIn just deleted the Robin account but [a cached version] is still there on Google.
What's the takeaway from the experiment? The big takeaway is not to friend anybody unless you really know who they are. The same tactic was used to infiltrate a secret Israeli base. The people on the base were the only ones on a private Facebook page. Somebody was able to gain access to it and gather intel on the base.
Anything else? I was never able to friend anyone from the CIA or the FBI. I tried. It just didn't work. Toward the end of the experiment, there was this massive influx of Arabs from overseas that were trying to get on the Robin page where all the military stuff was. I didn't really care for it. That was a bit scary.
Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan , or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com .
Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.