Attacks/Breaches
5/9/2013
09:28 AM
Connect Directly
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

How Syrian Electronic Army Unpeeled The Onion

Satire site The Onion details multi-pronged Twitter account takeover strategies used by hacktivists.

10 Top Password Managers
10 Top Password Managers
(click image for slideshow)
Satire site The Onion has offered a glimpse into the techniques used by the Twitter account takeover artists known as the Syrian Electronic Army.

The campaign launched by the hacktivist group wasn't complex, although it did involve several waves of attacks, resulting in multiple compromised systems and credentials, according to "How the Syrian Electronic Army Hacked The Onion," posted Wednesday to the satire site's Tech Blog.

Here's how the attack commenced: Starting Friday, May 3, a handful of Onion employees received emails that asked them to read a story, and included an apparent Washington Post link. In reality, the link led to a hacked WordPress site, which redirected to a googlecom.comeze.com site that requested their Google Apps credentials, which, if entered, redirected users to their Gmail account.

"These emails were sent from strange, outside addresses, and they were sent to few enough employees to appear as just random noise rather than a targeted attack," according to the Onion's attack overview. "At least one Onion employee fell for this phase of the phishing attack."

[ Is it easier to catch a hacker with honey? Sweet Password Security Strategy: Honeywords. ]

Early Monday morning, attackers used the compromised account to send the same phishing message to more employees. "Coming from a trusted address, many staff members clicked the link, but most refrained from entering their login credentials. Two staff members did enter their credentials, one of whom had access to all of our social media accounts," according to the Onion's recap.

The same day, attackers defaced the Onion's Twitter account page and began issuing bogus tweets. In response, the Onion's IT team issued a company-wide alert, telling all employees to reset their Google Apps passwords. But attackers used another account that they'd compromised to issue their own password-reset warning. To make this third wave of attacks more difficult to detect, attackers cleverly didn't send the phishing email -- which included a "password-reset link" that instead redirected to the malicious phishing website that requested a user's Google Apps credentials -- to any IT employees.

"This third and final phishing attack compromised at least two more accounts," according to the attack overview. "One of these accounts was used to continue owning our Twitter account." At that point, the IT department forced all employees to reset their Google Apps passwords, which allowed them to finally regain control of the accounts and begin a mop-up operation.

The Syrian Electronic Army is allied to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, and hacktivist group member "Th3 Pr0" told The New York Times that the Onion Twitter account takeover was meant to be revenge for its recent Assad-attributed editorial titled "Hi, In The Past 2 Years, You Have Allowed Me To Kill 70,000 People."

What lessons can be learned from the successful Syrian Electronic Army phishing attack against the Onion? The company's IT team reported that "a few simple security measures" would have blocked the attacks. For starters, the attacker connected to compromised accounts from the IP address 46.17.103.125, which is the same domain used to host a Syrian Electronic Army leaks website. Obviously, blocking all connections from that IP address, or other sites associated with the group, would be a good start.

To help block phishing attacks, the IT team also recommended using one email address system for everyday emails, and an entirely different one for Twitter accounts. In addition, it said that employing an intermediary social media management system such as Hootsuite would make it much more difficult for an attacker to fully compromise an organization's Twitter accounts.

For an industry that's predicated on reporting, it's notable that the Onion is the first news outlet -- satirical or straight -- to detail exactly how its Twitter accounts were owned by the Syrian Electronic Army. That's despite the hacktivist group having exploited the Twitter feeds of such organizations as National Public Radio, Reuters, the BBC and the Guardian.

But the Syrian Electronic Army's most infamous outing to date was its compromise of multiple AP Twitter feeds, which it used to issue a hoax alert that President Obama had been injured in explosions at the White House. The compromise led to reports that Twitter was finally prepping two-factor authentication to help users block some types of account takeovers.

According to the Syrian Electronic Army, it seized control of the AP accounts via a phishing campaign that compromised at least 50 employees at the news agency, including social media editors.

People are your most vulnerable endpoint. Make sure your security strategy addresses that fact. Also in the new, all-digital How Hackers Fool Your Employees issue of Dark Reading: Effective security doesn't mean stopping all attackers. (Free registration required.)

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
PJS880
50%
50%
PJS880,
User Rank: Ninja
6/7/2013 | 2:50:34 AM
re: How Syrian Electronic Army Unpeeled The Onion
I would think by know
that with all the breeches that are occurring due to phishing emails companies
would just instate a policy where employees are discouraged to click any links
in emails regardless of the appearance. All that aside it was very impressive
the way the Syrian army initiated the attacks with simplicity.

Paul Sprague

InformationWeek Contributor
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon
Current Issue
Dark Reading, September 16, 2014
Malicious software is morphing to be more targeted, stealthy, and destructive. Are you prepared to stop it?
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2014-0993
Published: 2014-09-15
Buffer overflow in the Vcl.Graphics.TPicture.Bitmap implementation in the Visual Component Library (VCL) in Embarcadero Delphi XE6 20.0.15596.9843 and C++ Builder XE6 20.0.15596.9843 allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code via a crafted BMP file.

CVE-2014-2375
Published: 2014-09-15
Ecava IntegraXor SCADA Server Stable 4.1.4360 and earlier and Beta 4.1.4392 and earlier allows remote attackers to read or write to arbitrary files, and obtain sensitive information or cause a denial of service (disk consumption), via the CSV export feature.

CVE-2014-2376
Published: 2014-09-15
SQL injection vulnerability in Ecava IntegraXor SCADA Server Stable 4.1.4360 and earlier and Beta 4.1.4392 and earlier allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary SQL commands via unspecified vectors.

CVE-2014-2377
Published: 2014-09-15
Ecava IntegraXor SCADA Server Stable 4.1.4360 and earlier and Beta 4.1.4392 and earlier allows remote attackers to discover full pathnames via an application tag.

CVE-2014-3077
Published: 2014-09-15
IBM SONAS and System Storage Storwize V7000 Unified (aka V7000U) 1.3.x and 1.4.x before 1.4.3.4 store the chkauth password in the audit log, which allows local users to obtain sensitive information by reading this log file.

Best of the Web
Dark Reading Radio
Archived Dark Reading Radio
CISO Insider: An Interview with James Christiansen, Vice President, Information Risk Management, Office of the CISO, Accuvant