UPDATE: Twitter today confirmed it's investigating irregularity with its APIs. We will update as we know more information about the problem.
New York's Department of Financial Services (DFS) is calling for greater cybersecurity regulation at social media firms following an investigation into the July 15 Twitter breach. The attackers' ability to achieve "extraordinary access" using "simple" techniques highlights the potential for major security incidents at similarly large and powerful tech companies, researchers report.
Twitter, a $37 billion company with at least 330 million monthly active users, made headlines this summer when attackers used a social engineering scam to trick Twitter employees into handing over credentials into Twitter's corporate network. As indicated in the DFS report, the hackers claimed they were responding to a reported problem the employee was having with Twitter's virtual private network (VPN). Since switching to remote work, VPN issues were common at the company.
With this initial compromise, the attackers were able to navigate Twitter's internal websites and learn more about its information systems. They learned how to access internal applications and with this learned who they should target to access internal tools needed to take over a user's account. They took over accounts with desirable usernames and sold access to them.
Attackers then turned things up a notch and targeted high-profile accounts belonging to Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Joe Biden, and Kanye West, in addition to companies such as Uber and Apple. They used this access to launch a scam and posted several tweets requesting followers to send Bitcoin – a scheme that netted them about $118,000.
Shortly after the attack, three individuals ages 17, 19, and 22 were charged for their roles in the hack. As the DFS points out, it was "jarringly easy" for young hackers to break into Twitter and hijack accounts belonging to some of the world's most prominent people and companies. While these attackers were focused on fraud, advanced adversaries could do far greater damage.
This incident underscores the need for strong security to "curb the potential weaponization of major social media companies," officials wrote. Public institutions haven't caught up with the new challenges that social media presents. Other industries, such as utilities, finance, telecommunications, and other critical infrastructure, have established regulation to ensure the public interest is protected. The same should be done for large and systemically important social media companies, they argue.
"The Twitter Hack demonstrates, more than anything, the risk to society when systemically important institutions are left to regulate themselves," officials wrote. "Protecting systemically important social media against misuse is crucial for all of us–consumers, voters, government, and industry."
Read the full investigation report for more details on the Twitter hack and recommended steps for improving cybersecurity oversight of large social media companies.