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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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.

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.

  • For several hours Twitter blocked its "verified" users — those with blue checkmarks — from posting as it tried to lock down its systems.
  • 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 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 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. "Twitter was long put on notice by the Federal Trade Commission about its repeated security lapses and failure to safeguard accounts. 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 attackers came out on top.

  • If they 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.
  • 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.

Go deeper

Trump and lawmakers react to intel alert on Russia and Iran election interference

Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in Washington, D.C. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump and lawmakers reacted to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe's announcement that Iran and Russia sought to influence the U.S. election by obtaining voter registration data in an attempt to spread false information.

What they're saying: Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) urged Americans in a joint statement to "be cautious" ahead of the Nov. 3 election "about believing or spreading unverified, sensational claims related to votes and voting."

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Politics: Fauci says he accepted Biden's offer to be chief medical adviser "on the spot" — The recovery needs rocket fuel.
  2. Economy: U.S. economy adds 245,000 jobs in November as recovery slows — America's hidden depression: K-shaped recovery threatens Biden administration.
  3. Education: Devos extends federal student loan relief to Jan. 31
  4. States: New Mexico to allow hospitals to ration coronavirus medical care
  5. Vaccine: What vaccine trials still need to do.
  6. World: UN warns "2021 is literally going to be catastrophic"
  7. 🎧 Podcast: Former FDA chief Rob Califf on the vaccine approval process.
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We all know, it’s getting worse.

Reality check: Here are a few things every one of us can do to stay safe and sane in coming months: