How the massive Twitter hack may have happened

They are usually not the solely ones looking for solutions. So are members of Congress, cybersecurity consultants, and Twitter itself. The FBI is concerned, too: Officials stated Thursday they’re investigating the incident, and legislation enforcement sources have instructed CNN the company is reviewing what seem like screenshots of Twitter’s inner account administration software program circulating on social media.

The former workers’ evaluation focuses on the similar software program, a robust device that provides a big variety of approved Twitter staff the potential to handle high-profile accounts, together with by viewing protected person info and even altering e mail addresses linked to the accounts, in response to interviews with a number of former workers, all of whom spoke with CNN on situation of anonymity to debate a former employer. The former workers concluded that hackers probably used the device to entry the accounts after which reset passwords.

“It’s been a lot of comparing notes, people refreshing their memories and trying to piece together how this happened,” stated one in every of the individuals concerned in the discussions. “It included some security people that tend to be the most creative in thinking of, ‘Well, if I were the bad actor, how would I do this?'”

Twitter declined to remark for this story.

Searching for clues

So far, the firm has revealed some essential clues. It has said hackers focused staff who had administrative privileges. Once numerous them had been compromised, the hackers used their entry to inner controls to ship out tweets selling a Bitcoin rip-off underneath accounts owned by Bill Gates, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian West, Warren Buffett, and others. On Friday, the New York Times reported, citing interviews with individuals concerned in the occasions, that the hack was the work of a bunch of younger individuals who opportunistically leveraged their entry to the device.

But that also would not clarify how the hackers may take management of the accounts. And an individual near the Biden marketing campaign instructed CNN Thursday that Twitter has not shared rather more with victims of the assault than it has launched to the public.

Based on Twitter’s preliminary rationalization and the circulating screenshots, the former workers shortly concluded that hackers had accessed an administrative platform recognized internally as “agent tools” or the “Twitter Services UI.” This inner device is meant for workers to deal with buyer help requests and to reasonable content material, stated an individual accustomed to Twitter’s safety.

Hundreds of Twitter workers have entry to agent instruments, in response to one in every of the individuals who participated in the former-employee discussions. It is a robust platform that may present Twitter customers’ cellphone numbers in the event that they have registered them with the firm, in addition to customers’ geolocation and any IP addresses that have been used to entry the account, the particular person stated.

Ashkan Soltani, a safety professional and former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission, stated it is common for tech firms to have inner instruments akin to these. While the precise options and permissions would possibly differ from firm to firm, he stated, the greater query considerations the scope of the compromised workers’ entry.

“The question at the end of the day is, ‘What level of [employee] account was accessed?'” Soltani stated. “And if it was a lower-level account, is Twitter doing anything to properly segment it from [employee] superuser rights?”

One of the most delicate capabilities related to Twitter’s device is the potential to alter the e mail addresses to which Twitter sends password-reset directions. What probably occurred, the former workers stated, is that the attackers used the device to alter the e mail addresses related to the focused Twitter accounts, then despatched password-reset directions to new e mail addresses underneath the hackers’ management. Once the hackers had been in a position to alter the person passwords, they might log into the Twitter accounts as in the event that they had been the rightful homeowners.

The assault may have happened proper underneath the noses of the individuals whose accounts had been taken over. Many social media firms have constructed their person login methods to be frictionless, that means that customers are hardly ever logged out of an app after they alter their passwords.

“So if you are a celebrity, someone using this method could have changed your password but you wouldn’t necessarily be locked out and you wouldn’t necessarily know about it,” stated a former worker.

In different phrases, the hacked customers may have been taking a look at their Twitter accounts as if nothing had modified.

In precept, safety methods akin to two-factor authentication are supposed to thwart unauthorized logins. An account protected by two-factor authentication will ask customers to supply not solely an accurate username and password, but in addition a verification code despatched to a separate machine {that a} respectable person would management.

In this case, any two-factor authentication on the victims’ accounts may have been bypassed, the former workers stated. One of agent instruments’ capabilities is the energy to disable two-factor authentication, one in every of the individuals stated. (According to Soltani, any such functionality, together with the energy to alter person e mail addresses, is usually utilized by firms to assist clients get well their accounts in the event that they lose entry to their cellphones or e mail.)

If the former workers’ principle is right, then all the hackers wanted to do in taking up these outstanding accounts was to disable two-factor authentication if it was enabled, change the vacation spot deal with for password resets, then surreptitiously change the victims’ passwords and log in with the new credentials.

There are some issues agent instruments don’t permit, in response to one in every of the individuals: The platform doesn’t immediately grant entry to the contents of customers’ direct messages, for instance. But by logging in to an account as the rightful proprietor, a hacker would nonetheless be capable to entry these messages. Twitter has stated there is no such thing as a proof passwords had been stolen, however it’s still investigating whether or not “non-public data” may have been compromised.

The particular person near the Biden marketing campaign stated that in the case of Biden’s account, there aren’t any compromising messages to be discovered. “I’ve seen the DMs over there, and it’s nothing special,” the particular person stated. “It’s all just outreach to voters.”

How the hackers bought entry remains to be unknown

While the nature of the assault is turning into clearer, what stays a thriller is how the hackers gained entry to agent instruments in the first place.

Twitter has blamed the safety incident on “coordinated social engineering,” a time period that Michael Coates, a former chief info safety officer for Twitter, stated may embody a spread of threats.

“This could be any number of techniques being used, from phishing emails [to] some sort of bribery,” he said Thursday on CNN’s “Quest Means Business.”
The firm confronted a bribery scandal final yr when federal prosecutors accused two former Twitter employees of spying for Saudi Arabia. At the time, Twitter stated it “limits access to sensitive account information to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”

Access to agent instruments is proscribed by numerous safeguards, the former workers stated.

“I can confirm there are many layers of controls,” Coates stated, talking of Twitter’s inner methods broadly. “There’s analysis, there’s logging, data science analysis, minimum privilege — all these things that you would expect in these systems.”

At least two different layers of safety are concerned, in response to the former workers. Under regular circumstances, agent instruments can solely be accessed whereas workers are linked to the firm intranet — that means they should be bodily in the workplace or logged into the community by way of VPN. And to log into agent instruments itself, the workers should present their very own company username and password.

It’s unclear whether or not the pandemic may have led to distant work insurance policies that might have made it simpler to log into agent instruments, a number of former workers stated. While it’s a risk, they acknowledged, there is no such thing as a proof that Twitter relaxed its safety to accommodate working from house. Twitter declined to touch upon its distant work insurance policies.

Even inside agent instruments, workers’ roles inside the firm can restrict which person accounts they may entry, one in every of the former workers stated. For instance, an individual whose job is to deal with help requests from journalists may be capable to entry journalist accounts, however maybe not others. These limitations may assist clarify why the hackers focused a variety of present Twitter workers.

Due to the exercise information that Twitter retains on its workers, monitoring down which employee accounts accessed the accounts of VIPs could be a trivial activity, the former workers stated. A harder problem — one that may probably require the assist of legislation enforcement — could be figuring out whether or not the workers themselves had been knowingly concerned, or in the event that they had been merely used as unwitting accomplices by the exterior hackers.

Investigators have additionally not dominated out the risk of nation-state involvement in the assault, although at the second there doesn’t seem like proof of it, in response to an individual accustomed to the matter.

Alex Marquardt, Evan Perez and Donie O’Sullivan contributed to this story.

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