Social Engineering: The Art of Deception

Published in 2007, The Art of Deception by Kevin D. Mitnick presents the idea of social engineering as the key to successful computer hacking. Widely considered to be one of the most notorious hackers of the 80’s and 90’s, Mitnick knows rather a lot about this area. The premise of the book is that humans are conditioned to please, to be polite and trusting. For those working in the service fields, even more so. Which, in Mitnick’s mind, creates a multitude of opportunities for the zealous hacker. Why spend countless hours writing code, when you can just  convince someone to share a password? It turns out that for many hackers, writing code is the last resort to breaking security measures.

While I haven’t read the book, I found the concept fascinating, and all too believable. We’ve all met that person, that guy or gal that could sell anything to anyone. They just seem to project a vibe that’s oh-so-hard to resist. You watch them work a group or roomful of people, and you realize, “Wow, that’s a gift. A terrifying gift.” Sometimes, that guy or gal crosses a line, and moves from demonstrating uber skill to something else altogether. (In my case, I then feel like I want a long, hot shower because there’s something vaguely slimy about the vibe.) But, we can watch these guys and gals and they’re so often successful at getting the information, the sale, the whatever they’re after. It’s all done by preying on the natural tendencies most of us have, or the tendencies that were drilled into us by our families, to be polite and kind and helpful.

As a reader, I’m impressed by the authors that can write these characters with authenticity. We discussed in a previous post that it’s important not to end up with cartoon-like villains; likewise, it’s tough to write the evil wheeler-dealer types (again, as compared to those ethical and talented sales people, negotiators, etc.) without them becoming caricatures. (Then again, to the jaded among us, they may seem like caricatures in real life, too!) Where is that line? It will vary some by reader, of course, but in general, where is that line? I don’t have an answer. Perhaps the line moves based on how the story is constructed, as well as how the protagonist has developed. A Kinsey Millhone will not be easily swayed, but the receptionist as her old insurance company might. Eve Dallas tolerates little in the way of wheeler-dealer types, but the early Peabody would definitely overshare in her desire to be kind and helpful.

I don’t have enough of these in my WIP, either the evil wheeler-dealer or the naive, helpful, kind types, but after a few weeks of deception, I find myself pretty excited to begin working on them!


Author: Pamela A. Oberg

Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.

11 thoughts on “Social Engineering: The Art of Deception”

  1. Maybe it’s my age. Or the day I’ve had. But I have to say I’m pretty exhausted of the naive, helpful types. They irritate me and I almost feel like they’re a prop.

    I think it’s time for bed.


  2. As I read your post I was thinking of the handwritings of the type manipulator you described. Definitely, they’re more interesting than the sweet innocents, but with any character, the key is to not make them an over the top cartoon character, right? I think nuance and complexity will improve any type.


  3. I remember quite clearly, and with a sting, several years ago when I was snared by a guy selling prettily-packaged beauty products at a kiosk. $180 and half a suitcase of products later, I figured out that the before and after worked because he was pummeling my wrinkles, making the tissues swell, during the free demonstration. What sucked me in was the appearance of a very nice young man, with an accent, who claimed to be a foreign student working his way through college.


  4. Peg, you made me laugh; I know what you mean!

    Sheila, I love handwriting analysis. So fascinating! I love the word nuance, too. That’s exactly the key, I think.

    Keenan, I’ve been there! And yes, we were completely swayed by the fresh, young face, the accent, etc. Also, he totally roped my kid in. Sneaky!

    Sue, you’re right, that’s a big part of this, isn’t it?


  5. What a cool post, Pamela! I’m intrigued by these deceptive characters. Are they aware of the power they have over people? Do they use their influence for good or evil? Do they know not to bother with people who are more savvy? It seems like the answers to questions like these can keep them from becoming cartoon villains 🙂


  6. Keenan, I think I bought a bottle of lotion from that same guy! Great post, Pamela. I think the person you are describing would be a great POV in a book. I’d love to see inside their head, nuance and all.


  7. I do like those charmers. Dexter comes to mind. I introduced Jeff Lindsay, Dexter’s creator, before his keynote at the Pikes Peak Writers conference last year. I said something about being comfortable inviting Dexter to dinner, but scared to death to invite Jeff, since he thought him up. Got a big laugh, but it was totally true.

    And what you say is true, Pamela, about people — especially women — trying to be polite, helpful, quiet, etc. I’m generally none of those things, but in college took a self-defense class in which I actually had to learn how to yell. It does not come naturally to us, even us loud ones. I think it’s a great trait to explode in a character, or to create a believable situation.

    Oh, and yes, I bought not one, but TWO nail kits from a charmer in the mall.


  8. Well, sorry to say this, but the “art of deception” is something I am very familiar with in my “other” life. It’s all about behavior modification, be it through sales (took those classes, did that) or in dealing with children with significant behavior disorders (took those classes, did that). So, the difference is the fundamental motivation of the person doing the behavior modification. I sold “stuff” (expensive stuff) honestly, to get paid, and I was good at it. I did “positive behavior support” for children with significant behavior disorders to get paid, and I was good at it. The difference is that when I sold “stuff” the people who bought were happy too, and when I “modified” the behavior of “difficult” children, their parents were happy. If a person really is motivated and learns how to do it — he/she can just about walk all over anyone.

    So, just keep the serial killers and con artists out of those sales classes.


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