Twitter logo. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Twitter logo. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Twitter racing to unravel mystery cyberattack

Some of the world’s most prominent names had their Twitter accounts post invitations for an apparent Bitcoin scam

As Twitter Inc. grapples with the worst security breach in its 14-year history, it must now uncover whether its employees were victims of sophisticated phishing schemes or if they deliberately allowed hackers to access high-profile accounts.

On Wednesday, some of the world’s most prominent names, including former president Barack Obama and Democratic candidate and his former vice president Joe Biden, along with Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Warren Buffett, had their Twitter accounts post invitations for an apparent Bitcoin scam. Twitter reacted by blocking further posts from all verified accounts on the service and said it had detected “a coordinated social engineering attack by people who successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools.”

The company’s explanation has ignited speculation over the identity of the perpetrators and what they were actually targeting in the attack. The scale of the endeavor and its timing —months before the November U.S. elections —have given rise among cybersecurity experts to theories that the attack masked a more nefarious campaign to seize sensitive data.

In its investigation of the incident, Twitter will now likely focus on employee logs, email and phone records. At question will be any failures in authentication processes that might have allowed hackers to hijack verified accounts, and also what other information, such as direct messages, might have been compromised in the breach. The Bitcoin wallets promoted in the tweets collected around $120,000 in cryptocurrency.

Twitter shares were down about 6% in pre-market trading on Thursday.

A social engineering attack means “leveraging the human element of security” and there are many different ways to do that, said Rachel Tobac, Chief Executive Officer of San Francisco-based SocialProof Security.

“I can phish someone who has administrative access and try and gain access to their credentials and log into their account,” she said, or the less technical method would be to develop “a relationship with someone who works on those panels and convincing them to do your bidding for you.”

Security awareness at companies like Twitter would be mandatory, but ultimately it’s hard to track insider attacks when it’s the employees rather than the technology who fall under the microscope, Tobac said.

“It used to be the Nigerian prince letter with a bunch of spelling mistakes, and now it’s something that almost looks legitimate, but it always starts with a person,” said Frances Dewing, the CEO of cybersecurity firm Rubica Inc., based in Seattle.

“There’s a playbook for doing this, there are cybercriminal organizations that make millions of dollars. It’s the fastest growing business in the world,” she said.

And there is no accounting for disaffected workers, as Twitter learned in 2017 when an employee deactivated President Donald Trump’s account before it was quickly restored.

Identifying potential Twitter employees to target wouldn’t be difficult for the hackers, given the way most smartphone apps hungrily vacuum up location and other contextual data from users —data which is often then sold on to marketing companies. Anyone frequenting the same coffee shops and businesses or entering and leaving a workplace at particular hours can give away clues about themselves.

Cybersecurity experts can only speculate until Twitter itself reveals what happened and where the failures occurred, but even this kind of show of force —a demonstration by hackers to earn credibility or gain infamy —isn’t convincing them that a Bitcoin scam was all there was to the operation.

With U.S. elections looming, the cyber landscape is ripe for a major attack. Stas Protassov, co-founder and president of global technology firm Acronis said the attack was “too prepared to be just a cryptocurrency scam.”

“We don’t believe that’s all the hackers went into once they got access,” he said in an email. “The attack is too big and too noisy and likely covering a bigger play. We’ve yet to see the full impact of what this was about.”

Tobac also raised the possibility that the attack could have been a distraction while hackers harvested private direct messages and any other confidential data to be able to deploy at a more critical time. So while the initial disruption to Twitter’s service appears to have been patched over and the company is gradually restoring normal operation, the lingering effects of this breach might have much wider effects than Wednesday’s spectacle.

“Maybe they were doing something insidious and this was just a cover up,” she said. “There’s no way for us to know, we can just speculate.”

Whatever happened, Twitter must be completely candid about the cause of attack once it’s established, Tobac said. “This was such a public meltdown that if they’re not completely transparent it would damage their brand further.”

Jamie Tarabay, Bloomberg News

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

social media

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Amanda Parsons, a registered nurse on staff at the Northwood Care facility, administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine to Ann Hicks, 77, in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-Pool
61 new COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Interior Health

Twenty-nine people are in hospital, seven of whom are in intensive care

Location of proposed homeless shelter.
Public hearing set for property featuring proposed homeless shelter

Public hearing set after presentations from BC Housing, city staff on shelter proposal, homelessness in town

The Cranbrook Food Bank Society is the recipient of a $250,000 BC gaming grant, earmarked for its new facility under construction on Industrial Road 2. The current downtown facility is pictured here.
Cranbrook Food Bank gets $250,000 gaming grant

Food Bank’s new facility, currently under construction, identified as project of pressing need

Mount Baker RV Campground. File photo.
Mount Baker RV Campground closing down

Major infrastructure replacements expected to cost an estimated $1.3 million

The Rotary Park Auto Tourist Camp, circa 1923. Two years later, the camp was moved Pooley Avenue, and is now the Mount Baker RV Park. Courtesy Jim Cameron.
After 96 years, Cranbrook’s downtown RV park is facing its future

The “Cranbrook Auto Camp” — Mount Baker RV Park — has operated at that spot since 1925. That’s about to change

Syringe is prepared with one of B.C.’s first vials of Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Victoria, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload stays steady with 465 more Tuesday

No new outbreaks in health care facilities, 12 more deaths

New Westminster TV production designer, Rick Whitfield, has designed an office in a box for British Columbians in need of a private workspace. (BC Box Office photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. man designs ‘box office’ solution for those working from home

‘A professionally designed workspace on your property, away from the distractions of home’

Chilliwack ER doctor Marc Greidanus is featured in a video, published Jan. 18, 2021, where he demonstrates and describes effectiveness of various styles of masks. (Youtube)
VIDEO: Emergency room doctor runs through pros and cons of various masks

‘We’ve been asked to wear a mask and it’s not that hard,’ Greidanus says.

(Pixabay photo)
VIDEO: Tip to Metro Vancouver transit police helps woman 4,000 km away in Ohio

Sgt. Clint Hampton says transit police were alerted to a YouTube video of the woman in mental distress

A woman types on her laptop in Miami in a Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, photo illustration. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Wilfredo Lee
British Columbia government lax on cybersecurity practices, auditor reports

The audit did not highlight a specific threat, but it found breaches in cybersecurity are increasing globally

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cranbrook Food Bank coordinator Deanna Kemperman, Potluck Cafe Society executive director Naved Noorani and Sunshine Coast Community Services Society executive director Catherine Leach join B.C.’s new Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne on a video call about B.C. gaming grants, Jan. 19, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. gaming grants reorganized for COVID-19 priorities

Minister highlights community kitchens, food banks

(Pixabay photo)
‘Cocaine bananas’ arrive at Kelowna grocery stores after mix up from Colombia: RCMP

Kelowna RCMP recently concluded an international drug investigation after finding cocaine in local grocers’ banana shipments in 2019

Most Read