Psychology Students Take Second Place in Social Engineering Competition

By Caitlin Burns | October 22, 2020

By Nikolai Kachuyevski ’21

Arcadia Psychology students Jill Brennan ’22, Michael McCoy ’22, Jassika Riad ’22, and Najae Jaylen Owens-Boone ’21 took home silver in a social engineering competition hosted by Temple University, held virtually from Oct. 2 to 5. 

“There were only six teams that were even accepted in the competition,” said Brennan. “We were incredibly excited to be competing against big name schools.”

Social engineering uses deception to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential or personal information, such as in cyberattacks. The competition aimed to have students learn and practice this legally by completing three different tasks, each centered around a different kind of social engineering: phishing, which is when someone sends fraudulent emails; vishing, which is when someone makes fraudulent phone calls; and open source intelligence, which is when someone collects and analyzes data that is publicly available, such as information on social media. 

“As much fun as I had there were times where I felt intimidated by other teams because our team doesn’t come for a cyber security background,” said Riad. “Regardless, it was a very educational experience.”

Dr. Vitaly Ford, assistant professor of Computer Science and Mathematics, and Dr. Katherine Moore, associate professor of Psychology, recruited the members of the team and introduced them to social engineering—something that was new to all members of the team. 

Students had to use various social and psychological skills, such as understanding human nature, gaining trust, and pretending to be someone they are not, in order to achieve objectives. Dr. Ford came up with various strategies to prepare the students, who also attended virtual workshops with all six teams and six judges prior to the competition.

“Those are the hardest skills to gain and could only be obtained through practice,” said Ford. “We went through real-life examples—news articles about social engineering hacks, video demos, social engineering chapters in books. Through those, I engaged them in thinking about how to become trusted and persuasive in vishing and phishing.” 

Because of the skills needed, Dr. Moore and Dr. Ford recruited Psychology majors for the team,  reaching out through Canvas to gauge interest.

“I selected these students based on their responses as to why they were interested and what they would bring to the table,” said Moore. “We were all so lucky that such talented students responded to the call, and made up a diverse set of academic interests, including neuroscience, cognitive science, and criminal justice in addition to psychology. We put together a strong application highlighting all of the special characteristics of the team as well as how they would work well together.”

This was the first year that the competition was held but there are plans to do it annually, and eventually in person rather than over Zoom.