The Anatomy Of The Twitter Attack

Nik Cubrilovic
Sunday, July 19, 2009; 2:40 AM

The Twitter document leak fiasco started with a simple story that personal accounts of Twitter employees were hacked. Twitter CEO Evan Williams commented on that story, saying that Twitter itself was mostly unaffected. No personal accounts were compromised, and "most of the sensitive information was personal rather than company-related," he said. The individual behind the attacks, known as Hacker Croll, wasn't happy with that response. Lots of Twitter corporate information was compromised, and he wanted the world to know about it. So he sent us all of the documents that he obtained, some 310 of them, and the story developed from there.

This post isn't about the confidential information taken from Twitter. It's about exactly how Hacker Croll was able to get such deep access to Twitter in the first place.

It's clear that Twitter was completely unaware of how deeply they were affected as a company - when Williams said that most of the information wasn't company related he believed it. It wasn't until later that he realized just how much and what kind of information was taken. It included things like financial projections and executive meeting notes that contained highly confidential information.

We've already said a lot about all of this and the related "server password = password" story that was discovered by another individual last week. But we've got two more stories to tell. The first, this post, is exactly how the hacks took place, based on information gathered from hours of conversations with Hacker Croll. The second is what was happening behind he scenes with Twitter as the story unfolded. We'll post that later this week.

When the story first broke the true scope of what had taken place and how it occurred was not understood. Various bloggers speculated about the cause of the attack - with some placing the blame on Google while others blaming the rising trend of hosting documents in the cloud.

We immediately informed Twitter of the information we had in our possession (and forwarded it to them), and at the same time reached out to the attacker. With some convincing, the attacker responsible for the intrusion at Twitter began a dialog with us. I spent days communicating with the attacker in an effort to gain insight into how the attack took place, what the true scope of it was and how we could learn from it.

We've waited to post exactly what happened until Twitter had time to close all of these security holes.

Some Background

In the security industry there is a generally accepted philosophy that no system or network is completely secure - a competent attacker with enough time, patience and resources will eventually find a way into a target. Some of the more famous information security breaches have relied on nothing more than elementary issues exploited by an attacker with enough time and patience at hand to see their goal through. A classic example is the case of Gary McKinnon, a self-confessed "bumbling computer nerd" who while usually drunk and high on cannabis would spend days randomly dialing or attempting to login to government servers using default passwords. His efforts led to the compromise of almost 100 servers within a number of government departments. After McKinnon spent a number of years trawling through servers looking for evidence of alien life (long story), somebody within the government finally wised up to his activities which lead to not only the arrest and attempted extradition of McKinnon from the United Kingdom, but a massive re-evaluation of the security methods employed to protect government information.

A more recent example is the case of Kendall Myers, who after being recruited to work for the Cuban government by an anonymous stranger they met while on holiday in that country, set out to obtain a high ranking position within the State Department specifically to obtain access to US government secrets. Kendall dedicated his entire life to obtaining state secrets, and up until he was recently caught by the FBI had successfully passed on secret information and internal documents to the Cuban government for 30 years. He relied only on his memory, his education credentials and sheer dedication.

The Twitter Attack: How The Ecosystem Failed

Like other successful attacks, Hacker Croll used the same combination of patience, sheer determination and somewhat elementary methods to gain access to a frightening number of accounts and services related to Twitter and Twitter employees. The list of services affected either directly, or indirectly, are some of the most popular web applications and services in use today - Gmail, Google Apps, GoDaddy, MobileMe, AT&T, Amazon, Hotmail, Paypal and iTunes . Taken individually, most of these services have reasonable security precautions against intrusion. But there are huge weaknesses when they are looked at together, as an ecosystem. Like dominoes, once one fell (Gmail was the first to go), the others all tumbled as well. The end result was chaos, and raises important questions about how private corporate and personal information is managed and secured in a time when the trend is towards more data, applications and entire user identities being hosted on the web and 'in the cloud'.

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