Twitter hacked phishing 2FA MFA

Why Twitter Got Hacked and How to prevent it

Written by
Calvin Hoenes

August 6, 2020

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Here's Why Twitter Got Hacked and How to leverage Zero Trust Security to Prevent Such Security Breaches in the Future

In one of the most brazen cyberattacks in recent history, some of the most influential Twitter accounts were compromised in mid-July. Twitter handles that got hacked included powerful names like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Kanye West, Joe Biden, and even the former United States President Barack Obama.

On the eve of July 15 2020, a multitude of high-profile Twitter accounts started to send out a tweet that shared a link accompanying a message which claimed that anyone who sends any amount of bitcoin to the link will receive their cryptocurrency back doubled. Had the tweet come from any average Joe’s handle, it would've been dismissed immediately as an outright scam. However, direct involvement of the world's most influential political and technology elites lent credibility to the message making many people fall for the scam.

Twitter Hack – As It Happened

According to the details disclosed by the affected platform, Twitter employees became victims of social engineering as they were tricked into revealing privileged information to hackers. Twitter Support referred to this attempt as "coordinated social engineering attack" as hackers were successful in targeting some of Twitter employees who had access to internal tools and systems.

The leaked information was used by the attackers to gain access to Twitter's internal database and it also enabled them to circumvent the social platform’s two-factor authentication (2FA). Once the hackers were in the system, resetting passwords of verified accounts was not that big of a challenge. Attackers targeted 130 accounts but they were able to execute password reset for 45 accounts. The hackers were also able to harvest sensitive personal data of influential people including phone numbers, email addresses, and private messages.

The first handles that got compromised were Apple and Uber accounts followed by those of Bill Gates and Elon Musk. In a matter of a few hours, the attackers had successfully taken over the Twitter accounts of Jeff Bezos, Barack Obama, Mike Bloomberg, and Joe Biden.

It is interesting to note that political and technology figureheads were not the only ones who were impacted. Sportsmen like Floyd Mayweather and pop culture icon Kim Kardashian also became the victims of the attack. This forced Twitter's hand to lock most of the verified handles across the United States and the world.

Weak Links that Enabled the Attack

Modern hacking revolves around exploiting weaknesses in the system instead of brute-forcing your way through them. Despite a major shift in focus towards both enterprise and consumer cybersecurity and privacy, our identities remain weak due to the following reasons.

- Passwords - A combination of characters that someone knows. It is a weak spot because passwords rely on human intelligence and constant vigilance. Any lack in either of those aspects can lead to exposure of sensitive information.

- Phishing
- Although many people can identify phishing attacks, ones that are more sophisticated are quite challenging to decipher, especially when they are used in combination with social engineering. Attackers gain your confidence and pick on your vulnerability to trick you into sharing information they are not privy to.

- Centralised Databases
- They are single-point failure systems as once a hacker is in, they gain access to pretty much anything they want. And before you find out about the attack and identify its nature and scope, the damage has already been done. Not unlike what happened in Twitter's hacking fiasco.

Consequences of the Attack

Hackers were able to take over influential accounts which could have been far more disastrous for the financial and political parts of the world. Fortunately, the attackers’ scam was quickly stopped by the coordinated effort of Twitter and the major cryptocurrency exchanges.

High-profile identities were stolen which again could have been used to enact conspiracies with far-reaching political and financial consequences.

The hack did not only cause financial and repetitional damage to the social media platform but for its victims it meant loosing untraceable money (crypto currency).

How to Prevent Such Attacks  

In order to reduce the chances of major security breaches in the future, companies need to adopt a system that relies on zero trust, zero knowledge, and zero personally identifiable information (PII) based security architecture. All of these features will enable the next-generation security technology designed to ensure that the end user is always authentic.  They key features would include:

- Password-less authentication which means social engineering or phishing attempts cannot be successful  

- Even if there is a phishing or account takeover attempt, there is built-in prevention within the architecture that keeps sensitive data and information safe and secure.

- There is no centralized database where all the credentials are stored as authentication information is either biometric-based and generated on the edge device.

- Privileged insider threat prevention which ensures human error or negligence does not get in the way of your cybersecurity initiatives.

- Using this modern security architecture allows you to deploy multi-party authorisation which substantially reduces the odds of a lone attacker or rogue insider compromising the entire system.

Final Word

In a matter of hours, the people behind the Twitter attack were not only able to compromise multiple high-profile accounts but sent out tweets that allowed them to defraud thousands of people successfully. Many would point fingers towards Twitter employees and the lax nature of security initiatives by the social platform itself, but the underlying causes were the weak links present within currently prevalent security architecture and procedures, which are used by all companies worldwide.

Humans will always be susceptible to making mistakes, going rogue, or being emotionally manipulated. The end goal should be to put a superior security architecture on top of them that strengthens inherent security by eliminating our reliance on the weak links that can be exploited. Zero trust, zero knowledge, and zero personally identifiable information (PII) based security architecture is the way to go if we are to prevent large-scale security breaches in the future.

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