A New York state regulator has slammed Twitter for poor cybersecurity protection that allowed young hackers to seize control of several celebrities’ accounts in July to run a “double your bitcoin” scam.
“Given that Twitter is a publicly-traded, US$37 billion technology company, it was surprising how easily the hackers were able to penetrate Twitter’s network and gain access to internal tools allowing them to take over any Twitter user’s account,” said the report by the Department of Financial Services.
“Indeed, the hackers used basic techniques more akin to those of a traditional scam artist: phone calls where they pretended to be from Twitter’s Information Technology department. The extraordinary access the Hackers obtained with this simple technique underscores Twitter’s cybersecurity vulnerability and the potential for devastating consequences. Notably, the Twitter Hack did not involve any of the high-tech or sophisticated techniques often used in cyberattacks–no malware, no exploits, and no backdoors.”
In particular, it slammed the company for not having a CISO for seven months before the attack. “A lack of a CISO sends the message that cybersecurity is not a top priority from senior leadership,” says the report.
The hackers — who are facing criminal charges — took over the Twitter accounts of politicians, celebrities, and entrepreneurs, including Barack Obama, Kim Kardashian West, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, as well as Twitter accounts of several cryptocurrency companies regulated by the New York State Department of Financial Services.
What worries the regulator is there are well-documented examples of social media being used to manipulate markets and interfere with elections, often with the simple use of a single compromised account or a group of fake accounts.
“The Twitter Hack demonstrates the need for strong cybersecurity to curb the potential weaponization of major social media companies. But our public institutions have not caught up to the new challenges posed by social media. While policymakers focus on antitrust and content moderation problems with large social media companies, their cybersecurity is also critical. In other industries that are deemed critical infrastructure, such as telecommunications, utilities, and finance, we have established regulators and regulations to ensure that the public interest is protected. With respect to cybersecurity, that is what is needed for large, systemically important social media companies.”
The attack started on the afternoon of July 14 when one or more hackers called several Twitter employees and claimed to be from the company’s help desk responding to a reported problem the staffer was having with Twitter’s virtual private network. Since switching to remote working, VPN problems were common at Twitter. The hackers then tried to direct the employee to a phishing website that looked identical to the real Twitter VPN website and was hosted by a similarly named domain. As the employee entered their credentials into the phishing website, they would simultaneously enter the information into the real Twitter website.
For protection, Twitter strengthens logins by making employees use multi-factor authentication. However, because the hackers were logging into the real site, if a staffer entered their MFA code on the fake site, the attackers could copy it into the real site.
To aid the attack, the hackers used personal information about the employees to convince them that the callers were real Twitter staff and could, therefore, be trusted. The report doesn’t say how the attackers got this information other than speculating it did research to identify staffers and their titles.
Some were suspicious
While some employees were suspicious and reported the calls to Twitter’s internal fraud monitoring team, at least one employee fell for the scam. Getting into this person’s corporate account didn’t get the attackers what they wanted, which was the ability to take over celebrity Twitter accounts. They took the time to wander around Twitter’s internal websites and learn more about the company’s systems. That gained them information about how to access other internal applications.
On July 15, the hackers targeted Twitter employees who had access to certain internal tools to help take over accounts. Some of them were part of the department responsible, in part, for responding to sensitive global legal requests, such as court orders or content removal requests, as well as for developing and enforcing policies to prohibit abusive online behaviour.
Initially, the hackers went after valuable so-called “original gangster” (“OG”) Twitter usernames, which are usually designated by a single word, letter, or number and adopted by Twitter’s early users. Access to a hijacked OG account could be resold for bitcoin. To show off their prowess, the hackers tweeted screenshots of one of the internal tools from some of the accounts.
Next, the hackers upped their game, going after “verified” accounts of well-known people who want the blue verified badge as a source of authenticity. But a hacked verified account would make fraudulent demands for bitcoin appear more legitimate. The first hijacked verified account belonged to a cryptocurrency trader—direct messages sent from that account asking for 0.01 bitcoin for trading information. After hijacking Twitter accounts of cryptocurrency exchanges, the hackers sent tweets suggesting a bitcoin giveaway, with a link to a scam address. Finally, the attackers gained access to verified accounts of celebrities and fired tweets with the scam offer to millions of their followers.
Exchanges moved quickly
Overall, 130 Twitter user accounts were compromised. Of those, 45 accounts were used to send tweets. Hackers also downloaded data from seven of those accounts through Twitter’s “Your Twitter Data” (“YTD”) tool, which provides a summary of a Twitter account’s details and activity.
The report says the hackers stole approximately US$118,000 worth of bitcoin through the scam.
The report credits cryptocurrency exchanges whose Twitter accounts were hacked with responding quickly to block impacted addresses after being notified by the regulator. Still, Gemini, Square, and Coinbase said that a handful of customers fell for the scam and transferred $22,000 in bitcoin to the hackers’ accounts.
But it came down hard on Twitter, particularly for not having a CISO for seven months before the hack. “A lack of strong leadership and senior-level engagement is a common source of cybersecurity weaknesses. Strong leadership is especially needed in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic has created a host of new challenges for IT and cybersecurity. Like many organizations, in March, Twitter transitioned to remote working due to the pandemic. This transition made Twitter more vulnerable to a cyberattack and compounded existing weaknesses.”
‘Didn’t implement significant compensating controls”
Early in the year, the department issued guidance to its regulated firms to identify and assess the new security risks created by remote working because of the pandemic, the report indicated. But Twitter was dragging its heels.
“Twitter did not implement any significant compensating controls after March to mitigate this heightened risk to its remote workforce, and the hackers took advantage.
“To its credit, Twitter has advised the Department that it is now implementing additional security controls to prevent similar attacks in the future, such as improved MFA and additional training on cybersecurity awareness, and in late September 2020, it announced the hire of a new CISO. But the consequences of the Twitter Hack show why it is critical for Twitter and other social media companies to implement robust controls before they experience a cyber incident, not after.”
Among the report’s recommendations are that cryptocurrency exchanges have to proactively identify and quickly block addresses known to be used by fraudsters. It also says that — where possible — some companies are restricting cryptocurrency asset transfers only to addresses that have already been approved. However, adding a new address can take a day or more.
“Twitter’s access management and authentication failed to prevent unsophisticated hackers from getting to the powerful internal tools,” the report notes. While Twitter limit access to the internal tools, over 1,000 employees still had access to them for job functions, user account maintenance and support, content review, and responses to reports of Twitter Rules violations. Since the hack, Twitter has further limited the number of employees with access to internal tools, even though it caused a slowdown of some job functions.
The report also says Twitter has abandoned application-based MFA in favour of a physical security key.
Finally, the report suggests a U.S. federal regulator be created to oversee social media platforms. “The risks posed by social media to our consumers, economy, and democracy are no less grave than the risks posed by large financial institutions,” it argues. “The scale and reach of these companies, combined with the ability of adversarial actors who can manipulate these systems, require a similarly bold and assertive regulatory approach.”