Buckle up, more hacks ahead: That's the loud message Wednesday's wild attack on Twitter is sending to public officials, business executives and leaders of political campaigns, Axios' Scott Rosenberg, Ashley Gold and Margaret Harding McGill report.
Why it matters: With the election less than four months off, the takeover of high-profile Twitter accounts provided a grim reminder of the vulnerability of our communications platforms, government systems and business networks.
Driving the news: On Wednesday, messages promoting a bitcoin scam started appearing on prominent Twitter accounts, including those of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett.
- Experts immediately assumed, and Twitter later confirmed, that this wasn't a series of individual account break-ins, but rather a compromise at its administrative level.
- The company said Thursday night that the accounts the attackers were able to tweet from were a "small subset" of roughly 130 accounts targeted in all. It's working to assess if any account data was compromised and promised to share details on any long-term steps it takes to shore up security in the wake of the hack.
The big picture: Four years ago at this time, the Clinton campaign was reeling from a public dump of pilfered Democratic party emails that turned the 2016 election cycle upside down.
- Partly as a result of that fiasco, potential hacking targets are more aware than ever of the potentially catastrophic consequences of losing control of their online accounts.
- More people are taking precautions, and fewer people are likely to fall for the most obvious threats.
But attackers have learned a lot since 2016, too. And the pandemic's work-from-home era has created fresh vulnerabilities for users who are adapting to new online work arrangements without ready access to onsite support.
What they're saying: Thursday saw both the FBI and the New York state attorney general announce investigations into the incident, and a wave of demands by members of Congress for information and remedies.
- "This hack bodes ill for November balloting," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in a statement. "Count this incident as a near miss or shot across the bow. It could have been much worse with different targets."
- Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement warning that the hack revealed "a worrisome vulnerability in this media environment — exploitable not just for scams, but for more impactful efforts to cause confusion, havoc, and political mischief."
- Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wants Twitter to encrypt direct messages. (It's worth remembering that a number of his colleagues want to make strong encryption illegal.)
Be smart: Many observers noted that the attackers' apparent goal of fleecing gullible users of their bitcoin was relatively low-key compared to the kind of mayhem they could have pursued, like manipulating markets, triggering international crises, or falsifying voting information on election eve.
There's a lot we still don't know, including:
- whether the Twitter attackers also gained access to the direct messages in the compromised accounts;
- whether the "social engineering attack" aimed at Twitter employees had any inside help;
- who the attackers are and what their goal was. (Here's some good detective work from Brian Krebs.)
One thing we know: For the moment, at least, the attack paid off.
- If the attackers aimed just to make money, they appear to have collected north of $100,000 worth of bitcoin.
- If they aimed to sow further confusion and doubt about the communications network relied on by the U.S. president, they did a pretty good job of that, too.
Our thought bubble: You'd think Twitter would have hardened its defenses by now, as well as tightened its controls on administrative access.
- After all, there was that time in 2017 when a rogue employee deactivated President Trump's account, "inadvertently due to human error," for 11 minutes.
- Nearly a decade ago, the company entered into a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over similar issues surrounding administrative security.
What's next: The FTC could get involved again.
- Steven Bellovin, a former FTC chief technologist, said that when the agency previously investigated high-profile account hacks over a decade ago, Twitter had failed to properly train administrators on password security.
- That led to a 20-year settlement, finalized in 2011, in part requiring Twitter to maintain a comprehensive information security program assessed by an auditor every other year for 10 years.
- "Given that this appears to be an abuse of administrator accounts again, I suspect the FTC is going to investigate to see if Twitter was actually living up to the agreement," Bellovin told Axios. Violations could lead to fines for the company.
- An FTC spokesperson declined to comment on whether the agency is investigating.
- Yes, but: The FTC's powers are limited to imposing fines and rules. And any action it takes is unlikely to help protect the election in November.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to fix the name of the Virginia senator quoted. It was Sen. Mark Warner, not Sen. John Warner.