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New York Department of Financial Services Issues Report on Recent Twitter Hack

You probably heard about the recent hack of Twitter accounts that took place on July 15, 2020. The hackers took over several prominent Twitter accounts, which resulted in a scam that netted over $118,000 in bitcoin for the hackers. One of the most startling things about the cyberattack was that it was led by a 17-year-old along with his accomplices. The hackers took over the accounts of well-known individuals including Barack Obama, Kim Kardashian West, Kanye West, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and many others, and tweeted a “double your bitcoin scam” from these Twitter accounts directing people to send bitcoin to fraudulent accounts.

The New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS) issued a detailed report last week regarding this hack into the social media giant. The report found that “the Twitter Hack happened in three phases: (1) social engineering attacks to gain access to Twitter’s network; (2) taking over accounts with desirable usernames (or “handles”) and selling access to them; and (3) taking over dozens of high-profile Twitter accounts and trying to trick people into sending the Hackers bitcoin. All this happened in roughly 24 hours.”

How did the hackers do it? According to the report, the first phase of the attack started with the hackers stealing credentials of Twitter employees the old-fashioned way by using social engineering. The hackers posed as Twitter IT employees and contacted several Twitter employees claiming there was a problem with Twitter’s Virtual Private Network (VPN). The report stated that the “hackers claimed they were responding to a reported problem the employee was having with Twitter’s Virtual Private Network (VPN). 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 legitimate Twitter VPN website and was hosted by a similarly named domain. As the employee entered their credentials into the phishing website, the Hackers would simultaneously enter the information into the real Twitter website. This false log-in generated an MFA [multi-factor authentication] notification requesting that the employees authenticate themselves, which some of the employees did.”

The hackers then went surfing within the Twitter system looking for employees with access to internal tools to take over accounts. This led to the second phase of the attack: taking over and selling access to original gangster (OG) Twitter accounts. According to the report, an OG Twitter account refers to accounts  designated by a single word, letter, or number and adopted by Twitter’s early users. The hackers discussed taking over and selling the OG accounts in various online chat messages. On July 15, the hackers “ hijacked multiple OG Twitter accounts and tweeted screenshots of one of the internal tools from some of the accounts to the accounts’ respective followers.

The final phase of the hack involved  taking over various cryptocurrency company accounts and directing users to a link to a scam bitcoin address. According to a tweet sent out by Twitter on July 16, approximately 130 accounts of high-profile verified users (those Twitter accounts that you see with the blue check mark) were taken over by the hackers with tweets asking people to send bitcoin, with the promise that the high-profile user would double the amount to be given to a charity. The bitcoin address was fraudulent, the tweets were not sent by the actual users, and the hackers were able to collect more than $118,000 in bitcoin.

The NYDFS began its investigation because the cryptocurrency companies are regulated entities. According to the report, the department instructed the cryptocurrency companies to block the hackers’ bitcoin addresses if they hadn’t already done so. This move prevented over a million dollars’ worth of fraudulent bitcoin transfers.

We write all the time about the critical importance of cybersecurity practices and protocols such as multifactor authentication, employee training regarding phishing, and using secure passwords. The general consensus appears to be that the Twitter hack was not a sophisticated one, but that the hackers knew what they were after and knew how to accomplish their goal. The NYDFS report stated that “the Twitter Hack is a cautionary tale about the extraordinary damage that can be caused even by unsophisticated cybercriminals. The Hackers’ success was due in large part to weaknesses in Twitter’s internal cybersecurity protocols.”

Copyright © 2020 Robinson & Cole LLP. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 296
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About this Author

Deborah A. George, Robinson Cole, Cybersecurity lawyer
Counsel

Deborah George is a member of the firm’s Business Litigation Group as well as its Data Privacy + Cybersecurity Team.

Deb advises clients on and focuses her practice on data privacy and security, cybersecurity, and compliance with related state and federal laws. She also has experience providing counsel in civil litigation and employment law matters.  She has significant experience offering advice and counsel on legal issues related to human services agencies, including Medicaid, as well as  drafting and reviewing contracts, business associate agreements, and data use agreements. ...

401.709.3363
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