SAN FRANCISCO/WASHINGTON, D.C. (News Nation) — A hacking spree on Wednesday night hijacked several high profile accounts on Twitter and led the platform to briefly shut down some of the most followed accounts. This led to several security experts expressing concerns about the platform and caused pre-market trading to drop for Twitter.
Twitter said late Wednesday hackers obtained control of employee credentials to hijack accounts including those of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, former president Barack Obama, reality television star Kim Kardashian, and tech billionaire and Tesla founder Elon Musk.
In a series of tweets, the company said: “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.”
The hackers then “used this access to take control of many highly-visible (including verified) accounts and Tweet on their behalf.”
The company statements confirmed the fears of security experts that the service itself – rather than users – had been compromised.
Twitter’s role as a critical communications platform for political candidates and public officials, including President Donald Trump, has led to fears that hackers could cause issues with the Nov. 3 presidential election or otherwise compromise national security.
“If the hackers do have access to the backend of Twitter, or direct database access, there is nothing potentially stopping them from pilfering data in addition to using this tweet-scam as a distraction,” said Michael Borohovski, director of software engineering at security company Synopsys.
Posing as celebrities and the wealthy, the hackers asked followers to send the digital currency bitcoin to a series of addresses. By evening, 400 bitcoin transfers were made worth a combined $120,000. Half of the victims had funds in U.S. bitcoin exchanges, a quarter in Europe and a quarter in Asia, according to forensics company Elliptic.
Those transfers left history that could help investigators identify the perpetrators of the hack. The financial damage may be limited because multiple exchanges blocked other payments after their own Twitter accounts were targeted.
The damage to Twitter’s reputation may be more serious. Most troubling to security experts like Dan Guido, CEO of security company Trail of Bits, was how long the company took to stop the bad tweets.
“Twitter’s response to this hack was astonishing. It’s the middle of the day in San Francisco, and it takes them five hours to get a handle on the incident,” Guido said.
Security experts also worry the bitcoin fraud was a distraction for more serious hacking, such as harvesting the direct messages of the account holders.
Twitter said it was not yet certain what the hackers may have done beyond sending the bitcoin messages.
“We’re looking into what other malicious activity they may have conducted or information they may have accessed and will share more here as we have it,” the company said.
Mass compromises of Twitter accounts via theft of employee credentials or problems with third-party applications that many users employ have occurred before.
Wednesday’s hack was the worst to date. Several users with two-factor authentication – a security procedure that helps prevent break-in attempts – said they were powerless to stop it.
Twitter shares down
Shares of Twitter Inc dropped more than 4% in pre-market trading on Thursday.
The hack “certainly doesn’t help,” Joe Wittine, Edgewater Research analyst, told Reuters in an email. It will pose more of a “reputational risk,” versus “material near-term risk to advertising revenues.”
Twitter said hackers targeted employees with access to its internal systems and “used this access to take control of many highly-visible (including verified) accounts and Tweet on their behalf.”
Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey said in a tweet on Wednesday that it was a “tough day” for everyone at Twitter and pledged to share “everything we can when we have a more complete understanding of exactly what happened.”
Other high profile accounts that were hacked included rapper Kanye West, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, investor Warren Buffett, Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates, and the corporate accounts for Uber and Apple Inc. Several accounts of cryptocurrency-focused organizations were also hijacked.
Reuters contributed to this report.