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What Are The Risks Of "Dark Pattern" Social Engineering Techniques?

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In today's digital landscape, organizations are constantly seeking innovative ways to capture attention and drive desired behaviors to increase engagement and sales. However, in this pursuit, a disconcerting trend has emerged: "dark patterns" are manipulative design techniques that subtly influence user behavior and present potential risks to both users and the companies that use them.

With the rise of these social engineering tactics, it becomes crucial for users to be aware of how they work and for companies to understand the potential consequences of their implementation. This article delves into how dark patterns are used and highlights how potential legal and brand reputation ramifications threaten organizations:

What Are Dark Patterns in Social Engineering?

A "dark pattern" is a term used to describe strategies used to manipulate user or customer behavior without their full awareness or consent, and the use of dark patterns is widely on the rise.

These deceptive techniques are typically used to nudge users into taking certain actions that may not align with their best interests to drive outcomes that benefit the company employing them. Dark patterns may make it easy to join or subscribe, but very hard, or even impossible to cancel, and have been observed across all industries in e-commerce, social media platforms, and subscription services, and attracted the attention of government and law firms alike.

Where Are Dark Patterns Found?

Places where dark patterns are often used include, but are not limited to:

  • Dark patterns in website design: Dark patterns can be implemented in several ways such as "misdirections", where users are intentionally guided toward unintended actions via strategically placed buttons, pop-ups, hidden settings, pre-checked boxes, or other misleading visual cues. The goal is to increase sales, and subscription numbers, or disclose personal information

  • Dark patterns in email: In email marketing, organizations may use manipulative tactics such as obscure language to trick recipients into subscribing to newsletters or accepting terms and conditions they would otherwise decline. For instance, a website might discreetly ask for permission to access a user's social media contacts and subsequently bombard them with unsolicited spam messages, falsely stating that the original user is endorsing a particular product or service

  • Dark patterns in physical stores: Although the term "dark patterns" was initially coined to reference digital UX design, manipulative social engineering is also used in physical stores. Some examples include placing two products side by side with deceptive price signs to make an expensive product seem to have an attractive price and manipulating self-checkout terminals to prioritize the display of more expensive, but similar products such as organic versions while making it harder to find less expensive ones

Dark Pattern Social Engineering Techniques in 2023

In 2023 and beyond, some of the most common dark pattern techniques are:

  • Subtle roadblocks: Design elements that make it difficult to perform certain actions, such as obscuring an "Unsubscribe" button in an email or forcing a user to navigate a lengthy cancellation process. In extreme cases, websites trick users with deceptive wording such as using a "Cancel" button to cancel a request to unsubscribe at the last step or adding delayed pop-ups to an unsubscribe request that must be completed before the request is processed

  • Roach motel: Making it easy to sign up but intentionally difficult to close or cancel an account, companies create hurdles or complex processes to discourage users from leaving. In extreme cases, designers may even create technical bugs such as pointing an unsubscribe button to a broken link and later claiming they were unaware of the technical glitch

  • Sneaking into the basket: Retailers have been caught sneaking items into an e-commerce shopping cart without the user's consent, such as warranties or service plans, which users then have to opt out of explicitly. The classic "read the fine print" advice certainly applies here as these last-minute add-on items will often not appear as independent items, but as hidden options on items, making the shopping cart's item counter appear correct

  • Confirmshaming: Using shaming language or emotional manipulation to create pressure to change user behavior. Some examples include using language such as "I hate saving money" when a user tries to say no to providing personal information for a discount, or "I prefer to stay uninformed" when a user unsubscribes from a newsletter

What Risks Do Dark Patterns Pose To Companies Using Them?

Employing dark patterns poses several company risks, including potential legal battles and long-term reputational damage.

Legal battles are on the rise and settlements can reach up to tens of millions of dollars. As consumers and regulatory bodies become increasingly vigilant about protecting their rights, companies are at increased risk of fines, and lawsuits for misleading or coercing users.

Additionally, dark patterns also pose significant risks to brand reputation such as negative reviews, social media backlash, and a loss of trust, all of which can translate into a cascading effect resulting in customer churn, decreased loyalty, and lost revenue.

Protecting Your Organization From Dark Patterns

Here are some ways to protect your organization from dark pattern-related social engineering:

  • Preventing dark patterns starts at the top: Leadership and management must be aware of and actively involved in the oversight of marketing practices to ensure ethical conduct and user-centric experiences. By promoting transparency and accountability, companies can establish a culture that discourages using manipulative techniques

  • Regular reviews and audits: Monitoring marketing materials, user interfaces, and customer interactions can help detect and eliminate deceptive elements, and establishing clear guidelines and ethical standards for marketing teams can foster responsible design and genuine customer engagement. Creating an environment of open communication and feedback can also empower employees and customers to raise concerns about potential dark patterns, increasing user trust and satisfaction

  • Beware third-party marketing agencies: When partnering with third-party agencies, organizations must exercise caution. Agencies seeking to boost engagement, sales, and user registrations may leverage dark patterns to prove the value of a marketing spend by showing impressive metrics. However, the potential legal consequences and risks to brand reputation far outweigh the temporary gains

Conclusion

Dark patterns are on the rise across various industries. They can be used in website design, email marketing, and physical stores to socially engineer outcomes for a company. Examples include subtle roadblocks, roach motels, sneaking items into shopping carts, and confirmshaming among others, and new techniques are sure to increase unless consumers and governments take action.

Employing dark patterns carries risks, such as legal battles and damaged brand reputation. Protecting against dark patterns requires leadership oversight, transparency, and accountability. Regular audits, clear ethical guidelines, and encouraging open communication and feedback empower employees and customers to address concerns while creating a culture of trust for long-term success.

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