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Twitter Attributes Latest Hack to Its Systems to Social Engineering
Last July 15th, verified Twitter accounts, including that of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Former U.S. President Barack Obama, tweeted similar content, saying that they've decided to give back to their community by giving back twice the Bitcoin amount (limited to US $50 million) for every Bitcoin that will be sent to a particular Bitcoin address.
The tweets were later removed – a confirmation that the tweets were part of a scam and that the involved verified Twitter accounts were, in fact, hacked. A total of 393 transactions sent varying amounts of Bitcoin to the indicated Bitcoin address. Whoever orchestrated the campaign earned 12.8 Bitcoins, valued at US $117,473 as of July 18, 2020.
How Twitter Was Hacked?
In a blog post dated July 18, 2020, Twitter attributed the hacking of the 130 verified Twitter accounts to social engineering. "At this time, we believe attackers targeted certain Twitter employees through a social engineering scheme," Twitter said.
The company, however, didn't elaborate how the social engineering was carried out by attackers. Twitter defined social engineering as the "intentional manipulation of people into performing certain actions and divulging confidential information."
According to Twitter, the intentional manipulation of a small number of Twitter employees enabled the attackers to access the company's internal systems using the credentials of the targeted Twitter employees, and "getting through" the company's two-factor authentication (2FA) protection.
Twitter said the attackers were able to view personal information including phone numbers and email addresses – information that were accessible to some of the targeted employees. Out of the 130 hacked verified accounts, Twitter added, 45 of those accounts, the attackers were able to login to the account, send tweets and initiate a password reset.
In accounts taken over by the attackers, the company said that the attackers may have been able to view additional information. The company also added that the attackers attempted to sell some of the hacked accounts.
The July 15th cyber incident at Twitter isn't the first hacking incident that the company experienced. Nearly a year ago, the Twitter account of its CEO Jack Dorsey was hacked.
After taking over Dorsey's Twitter account @jack, attackers fired off nearly two dozen tweets and retweets. "The phone number associated with the account was compromised due to a security oversight by the mobile provider," Twitter said in a statement. "This allowed an unauthorized person to compose and send tweets via text message from the phone number."
The above-mentioned statement from Twitter on how its CEO's account was hacked describes a typical SIM swap attack – a type of cyberattack in which a mobile phone company employee switches a victim’s phone number to a new phone number that's under the attacker’s control.
This type of attack is carried out in two ways. One method is by calling a customer help line of the mobile phone company and pretend to be the intended victim. The other method is by paying off phone company employees to do the phone number switches. There have been reports that attackers paid off phone company employees to do the phone number switching for as low as US $100.
SIM swap plays a big role in an attack that tries to bypass text message-based 2-factor authentication, an authentication method that requires additional authentication, that is, on top of the usual username and password requirement, a user can only login to an account by providing a one-time code – a code that's sent to the phone number provided by a user. In a SIM swap attack, by changing the target's phone number to the phone number controlled by the attacker, the one-time code is sent to the new phone number controlled by the attacker.
In September 2019, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned its partner organizations about SIM swapping. According to the FBI, between 2018 and 2019, the most common tactic used by attackers in circumventing the 2-factor authentication was through SIM swapping.
In 2019, a report came out that Twitter left its internal systems exposed to outsiders by failing to apply the latest security update of a particular software. This time, however, bug bounty hunters found the vulnerability and responsively disclosed the vulnerability to Twitter.
In a blog post dated September 2, 2019, security researchers at DEVCORE reported that they were able to perform on Twitter's internal systems remote code execution – the ability to access someone else's computing device and make changes to it regardless of where this computing device is geographically located. The researchers said they initially gained access to Twitter's internal system by exploiting an unpatched Pulse Secure VPN used by the company.
The security researchers at DEVCORE are the same researchers that discovered the remote code execution vulnerability in Pulse Secure VPN products and reported this vulnerability to the software vendor Pulse Secure. The same researchers also discovered and reported the security vulnerabilities in the VPN products of OpenVPN and Fortinet.
"During our research, we found a new attack vector to take over all the clients [computers or software that accesses a service made available by a server]," security researchers at DEVCORE said. "It’s the 'logon script' feature. It appears in almost EVERY SSL VPNs, such as OpenVPN, Fortinet, Pulse Secure… and more. It can execute corresponding scripts to mount the network filesystem or change the routing table once the VPN connection established. Due to this 'hacker-friendly' feature, once we got the admin privilege, we can leverage this feature to infect all the VPN clients!"
The researchers also reported that they bypassed the 2-factor authentication as Twitter enabled the Pulse Secure VPN's roaming session feature, which allows a session from multiple IP locations. "Due to this 'convenient' [roaming session] feature, we can just download the session database and forge our cookies to log into their system!"
Prior to going public, the security researchers at DEVCORE reported to Twitter their findings via the company's bug bounty program.
Social engineering is a significant risk for most organizations and individuals alike. This is why we’ve created a blog post with 52 cybersecurity tips for businesses and individuals to help mitigate key risks.
Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP