By Joseph Marks
This time, the massive Twitter hack yesterday was seemingly just a petty scam to raise bitcoin — at least based on what's known so far. But next time, it could be far more serious.
The unknown hackers held the Twittersphere in thrall last night as they seized control of high-profile accounts and sent phony tweets from Joe Biden, Barack Obama and a who’s who of top companies and business and entertainment leaders. It took Twitter hours of work and an unprecedented shutdown of all verified accounts to halt the operation, as Rachel Lerman, Cat Zakrzewski and I report.
U.S. adversaries that gained that sort of power could sow mass chaos on Election Day by tweeting out phony information about voter fraud or polling locations shut down by the coronavirus or terrorist attacks. And because the breach targeted Twitter controls, over which campaigns are powerless, they might have no power to stop the stream of phony tweets from flowing.
If Twitter once again shut down verified accounts' ability to tweet while it investigated a breach, that would also cut off a key avenue for campaigns, government officials and law enforcement to correct misinformation.
Such an attack could be particularly disastrous during a close election if people don't vote because of the confusion.
“Russia’s most dangerous play is how do you inflict the maximum amount of chaos on Election Day,” Clint Watts, a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who tracks Russian influence operations, told me. “They want to further erode confidence in democracy, and this is emblematic of a way they can do that.”
Rachel Tobac, chief executive of SocialProof Security, called the breach very concerning. “We are extremely lucky that these attackers are monetarily motivated and not sowing mass chaos all over the world,” she said.
Other prominent victims of the breach included the Uber and Apple corporate accounts, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Tesla founder Elon Musk, musician Kanye West and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) Those accounts all posted tweets instructing people to send cryptocurrency to the same bitcoin address over the course of about 90 minutes.
The bitcoin wallet the tweets pointed to appeared to receive more than $115,000.
TOP: Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. BOTTOM: SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. (Ludovic Marin; Olivier Douliery; Brendan Smialowski; Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
The breach underscores the vast array of avenues hackers could take to undermine the election.It also provides a window into the long list of possible attacks the Biden and Trump campaigns need to be planning for as November approaches.
In the case of an Election Day version of the Twitter breach, campaigns should be gaming out how to correct misinformation through traditional media and through other social media that isn’t compromised, Mick Baccio, a security adviser at Splunk, told me. Baccio ran cybersecurity for former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential primary campaign but left shortly before the Iowa caucuses.
“You have to plan for all these horrible scenarios and you have to have the principals in the room to figure out, ‘What will you do if this happens? What’s the incident response?’” he said.
Campaigns should also try to establish strong relationships in advance with the people they’ll need in those situations, such as Twitter’s cybersecurity executives, Baccio said.
“You have to know what’s inside your scope and what’s not and having contacts at those places is invaluable,” he said.
This isn’t the first time a Twitter hack has caused widespread confusion.Watts compared the breach to a 2013 hack of the Associated Press’s Twitter account that the Syrian Electronic Army claimed credit for. The hacking group, whose members are partisans of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, sent multiple tweets claiming the White House had been bombed and that President Barack Obama was injured. They caused chaos online and briefly tanked the stock market, causing a temporary loss of $136 billion in the S&P 500.
That was just one Twitter account whose tweets were quickly refuted by other news agencies — including by reporters at the White House who could verify everything was fine. Things could be far more complicated if multiple accounts were tweeting false information that couldn’t be so easily refuted.
More recently, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s account was hacked and tweeted a string of obscenities, threats and racial slurs in 2019.
Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey. (Francois Mori/AP)
It’s unclear how much information the hackers were able to cull from the Twitter accounts they compromised.If they were able to access the accounts’ direct messages, they might have stolen information they could leak later to embarrass the victims or to sow chaos during the 2020 election or another major event, Theresa Payton, chief executive of the cybersecurity company Fortalice Solutions and a former White House technology official, told me.
It's also possible the hackers stole information from accounts that they didn't use as part of the bitcoin scam that they could later leak or sell to someone with political motivations. For example, President Trump has among the most closely watched Twitter accounts in the world but his account wasn't used in the scheme.
“We could be looking at the potential for a huge hacking and dumping campaign,” Payton said.
Twitter described the breach as a “coordinated social engineering attack” aimed at its employees. It said it was “looking into what other malicious activity they may have conducted or information they may have accessed.”
We know they used this access to take control of many highly-visible (including verified) accounts and Tweet on their behalf. We’re looking into what other malicious activity they may have conducted or information they may have accessed and will share more here as we have it.— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) July 16, 2020
Tough day for us at Twitter. We all feel terrible this happened.— jack (@jack) July 16, 2020
We’re diagnosing and will share everything we can when we have a more complete understanding of exactly what happened.
💙 to our teammates working hard to make this right.
It's also unclear how the hackers gained access to the Twitter accounts.The company's brief accounting suggested the hackers conned Twitter employees into unwittingly giving up information that provided the access. But Vice's Joseph Cox spoke with people who claimed to be responsible for the breach who said they paid a Twitter employee for help gaining access.
Twitter is also investigating whether an employee might have hijacked the accounts directly and then passed the access along to the hackers, Cox reports.
One prominent theory, outlined by Vice’s Cox, is that hackers gained access to an internal panel that Twitter employees use to interact with user accounts and were using that access to post their bitcoin scheme to prominent accounts.
In many cases, the account owners or Twitter were able to quickly delete the scam tweets, suggesting that the hacker hadn’t locked them out of the accounts entirely.
Chat roomThe Twitter hack also sent shock waves through the cybersecurity community. Google's Shane Huntley drew the lesson that even cybersecurity savvy folks can be conned by phishing attacks.
It's been proven time and time again that pretty much anyone is able to be socially engineered with the right lure. The real protection for phishing is to make it so users can't be phished with tech like security keys.— Shane Huntley (@ShaneHuntley) July 16, 2020
Twitter wouldn't have to worry about the possibility that the attacker read, exfiltrated, or altered DMs right now if they had implemented e2e for DMs like EFF has been asking them to for years.— Eva (@evacide) July 16, 2020
Only $100,000? Good rule of thumb for carrying out a criminal conspiracy that will attract a level of federal law enforcement heat comparable to the energy output of the sun: you should make *at least* twice what your defense would cost if you get caught https://t.co/AWVRaCSG9v— Adam Rawnsley (@arawnsley) July 16, 2020
Trump granted the CIA broad authorities to launch secret cyberattacks in 2018.
The agency has carried out at least a dozen covert hacking operations since then, including hacking and dumping files from Iran and Russia, former officials told Yahoo.
The new authorities also allowed the agency to more easily conduct covert cyberoperations against banks, media organizations and charities suspected of working with adversary governments.
The White House also expanded authorities for U.S. Cyber Command to launch offensive hacking operations in 2018. That helped enable operations against a Russian troll farm during the 2018 midterm elections and against an Iranian military unit in retaliation for shooting down a U.S. drone.
The State Department will restrict U.S. visas of some Huawei employees, citing human rights abuses.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference July 15. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters)
The action also applies to several other Chinese companies the United States has sanctioned for allegedly aiding human rights abuses. The move is the latest escalation in the United States’ war against Huawei, which it has accused of aiding Chinese government spying.
“Telecommunications companies around the world should consider themselves on notice,” Pompeo said. “If they are doing business with Huawei, they are doing business with human rights abusers.”
Pompeo also praised the United Kingdom’s decision to phase out Huawei’s equipment from its 5G telecom networks.
“This isn’t about commercial interests, this is about protecting the information,” Pompeo said. “I think in fact the tide has turned there and you’ll see this continue in [other] countries.”
Pompeo is also sounding alarms about election interference.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters).
“Foreign efforts to interfere in American elections is something we constantly must contend with, and we’ll contend with that here,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo believes the U.S. government will be able to knock back those efforts, he stressed.
“Whether it’s Chinese interference, Iranian interference, Russian interference, or North Korean interference, any country, or even nonstate actors who now have capabilities to try to meddle in our elections, know that this administration takes seriously its responsibility to make sure every American’s vote is counted, counted properly, and that foreign influence is minimized,” he said.
A group of bipartisan lawmakers stumped for a new national cyber director during a House Oversight Committee hearing.
House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Here’s more from the Hill’s Maggie Miller.
IBM researchers an Iranian hacking group's training videos.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. (U.S. Navy/Christopher Bosch/Reuters)
The hacking group, which researchers have named Charming Kitten Phosphorus, was earlier blamed for hacking a U.S. presidential campaign that Reuters identified as the Trump campaign.
More news in hacks, breaches and disinformation:
- The Aspen Institute will host a discussion about U.S. Election security in the shadow of the coronavirus today at 1 p.m.
- The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing evaluating the Cyberspace Solarium Commission recommendations Friday at 12:30 p.m.
- The House Administration Committee will hold a hearing on the security of remote voting in the House on Friday at 1 p.m.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a discussion with former Google chairman and chief executive Eric Schmidt about technology, data and innovation policy on Friday at 4 p.m.
- The Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Manufacturing, Trade, and Consumer Protection will hold a hearing on protecting Americans from coronavirus scams on July 21 at 2:30 p.m.
- The Senate Rules Committee will hold a hearing on general-election preparations on July 22 at 10:30 a.m.