We treat direct messages on Twitter as private conversations. Last night’s hack shows that isn’t the case.
Hackers briefly seized control on Wednesday of the Twitter accounts of several high-profile users — Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and more — and used the accounts to push a rather transparent Bitcoin scam. The social media company has returned control to the users — but not before the intruders had the opportunity to access private messages.
We detected what we believe to be a coordinated social engineering attack by people who successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools.— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) July 16, 2020
On Thursday morning, Motherboard reported that one or more Twitter employees had given the hackers access to the accounts via an internal company tool. It’s not the first time that a Twitter insider has sold this kind of access. In 2015, Saudia Arabia bribed two Twitter employees to gain access to perhaps 6,000 accounts to help the Saudi government hunt dissidents abroad, according to a 2019 Justice Department filing. Since some of the accounts were linked to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, there’s a possibility that the user info Saudi government obtained could have played a role in Khashoggi’s murder.
Chris Kennedy, the chief information security officer for cybersecurity company AttackIQ is suspicous of the insider attack theory. "Though plausible, it’s more likely a twitter admin's remote work systems were compromised and their admin credentials collected through some form of 'man-in-the-middle attack.' and the attackers used those credentials to logon as an admin via remote access - just like the admin would," he told Defense One. "These types of techniques are common across the spectrum of low level to state-sponsored attackers. Given the entire world has basically pivoted to remote work, it’s probable even twitter didn't have good protections from this kind of attack in place, especially if they too recently pivoted to universal remote work without aligning their security and identity protection program with it.”
Wednesday’s hacking episode now appears resolved; service to the accounts has been restored and even Joe Biden is poking fun at the incident. But the nature of the hack suggests that there may be more to come. Because the hackers achieved password access to the accounts there's a strong likelihood that they were also able to see — and thus steal — direct messaging information, private conversations that the account holders had with others.
Most users expect that direct messages on Twitter, while exposed to the company administrators, are otherwise private. That assumption can lead users to engage in conversations that are better conducted over encrypted accounts or messaging services like Signal. The 1974 Privacy Act does apply to Twitter direct conversations, as they are password-protected. But a simple warrant is all that’s necessary for law enforcement to view them, or a greedy insider for someone else.
Consider Roger Stone’s Twitter messages with Wikileaks in September 2016 as well as with Guccifer 2.0, an entity that later turned out to be Russian military hackers, and the role those conversations played in the investigation into Stone. But Twitter DMs have sent other, less high-profile leakers to jail as well. In July 2019, a DIA employee discussed giving classified information to defense journalists Amanda Marcias and, later, Courtney Kube, using Twitter direct messaging. He later pleaded guilty to sharing the information and is currently serving a 30-month prison sentence.
Some lawmakers have suggested that Twitter direct messages should be encrypted. That argument grew stronger on Wednesday.
The perpetrators of yesterday’s hack may now have private conversations that they’ll be able to reveal at their discretion, or worse, manipulate and then publicize in order to create a false appearance. The only real defense that victims have in such situations is to reveal their private conversations themselves, before the hackers do.