Lawmakers zero in on Twitter following massive hack

Lawmakers zero in on Twitter following massive hack

The sweeping hack of verified Twitter accounts Wednesday night was one of the largest security lapses in the platform’s history and led to thousands of users being partially locked out for hours.

But the social media giant, and its users, may have gotten off easy. 

Now lawmakers and top officials are mulling how to ensure Twitter is not hacked by groups with more malicious intentions and how to protect other potential cyber targets from the same fate. The conversation has taken on a particular urgency as geopolitical tensions increase during the COVID-19 pandemic with only months left until a presidential election.

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“This hack bodes ill for November balloting,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the tech-focused Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement Thursday.

“Count this incident as a near miss or shot across the bow," he added. "It could have been much worse with different targets. So many security red flags are raised by this criminal attack that the culprits should be tracked down as quickly as possible.”

The hacking incident occurred Wednesday night, when accounts of verified Twitter users including former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden, Harris tear into Trump in first joint appearance The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden, Harris's first day as running mates It's Harris — and we're not surprised MORE, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE, Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosHillicon Valley: GOP lawmaker says 'no place in Congress' for QAnon after supporter's primary win | Uber CEO says app could temporarily shutdown in California if ruling upheld | Federal agency warns hackers targeting small business loan program Top Republican criticizes Twitter's briefing on massive hack To save the Postal Service, bring it online MORE, Tesla CEO Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskHillicon Valley: GOP lawmaker says 'no place in Congress' for QAnon after supporter's primary win | Uber CEO says app could temporarily shutdown in California if ruling upheld | Federal agency warns hackers targeting small business loan program Top Republican criticizes Twitter's briefing on massive hack SpaceX is building the road to the moon and Mars in Texas MORE, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates tweeted out messages asking followers to send them money in the form of bitcoin.  

The posts, which were quickly taken down by Twitter, gave an address to a bitcoin wallet, and promised to double any amount sent. The individuals behind the attack quickly raised the equivalent of more than $115,000

In response, Twitter temporarily restricted the use of verified accounts as it began its investigation into the incident. In at least one troubling case involving the National Weather Service (NWS), this decision prevented critical safety information from reaching the community for hours.

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Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerElection security advocates see strong ally in Harris Democrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling Hillicon Valley: Facebook removed over 22 million posts for hate speech in second quarter | Republicans introduce bill to defend universities against hackers targeting COVID-19 research | Facebook's Sandberg backs Harris as VP pick MORE (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told The Hill that the outcome could have been worse if individuals with more disruptive intentions than simply making money had been involved.

“The ability of bad actors to take over prominent accounts, even fleetingly, signals a worrisome vulnerability in this media environment — exploitable not just for scams, but for more impactful efforts to cause confusion, havoc and political mischief,” Warner said. 

The company later tweeted that hackers had “successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools” in what Twitter described as a “coordinated social engineering attack.” 

Twitter said it had limited access to “internal systems and tools” while their investigation was underway into the targeting of their employees. While it wasn’t immediately clear how the employees were targeted, Motherboard spoke with hackers claiming to be involved who said they paid a Twitter employee for some form of access to the accounts. 

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that company was “working hard to make this right,” while Biden tried to use the situation to his advantage by encouraging people to donate to his presidential campaign to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE instead of sending bitcoin.

 

But Twitter now faces a wave of governmental scrutiny, with many seriously concerned that it could provide avenues that others could exploit to cause damage. 

The FBI said Thursday that it was launching an investigation into the incident, while New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCalifornia Democrats back Yang after he expresses disappointment over initial DNC lineup New York may be undercounting coronavirus deaths in nursing homes: AP Cuomo calls on NYPD to 'step up' in enforcing coronavirus regulations at bars MORE (D) directed state agencies to separately investigate the incident.

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Both Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump The Hill's Coronavirus Report: INOVIO R&D Chief Kate Broderick 'completely confident' world will develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; GOP boxed in on virus negotiations Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers zero in on Twitter after massive hack | US, UK, Canada allege Russian hackers targeted COVID-19 vaccine researchers | Top EU court rules data transfer deal with the US is illegal MORE (R-Miss.) and House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member James ComerJames (Jamie) R. ComerHillicon Valley: GOP lawmaker says 'no place in Congress' for QAnon after supporter's primary win | Uber CEO says app could temporarily shutdown in California if ruling upheld | Federal agency warns hackers targeting small business loan program Top Republican criticizes Twitter's briefing on massive hack Lawmakers press Lockheed to pay back Pentagon for F-35 issues MORE (R-Ky.) sent Twitter letters asking the company to brief the panels on the hacking incident, with Wicker writing it was “of great concern” to his committee.  

Spokespersons for Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonRon Johnson signals some GOP senators concerned about his Obama-era probes Democrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling Hillicon Valley: Facebook removed over 22 million posts for hate speech in second quarter | Republicans introduce bill to defend universities against hackers targeting COVID-19 research | Facebook's Sandberg backs Harris as VP pick MORE (R-Wis.) and Gary PetersGary Charles PetersTop Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's visit to battleground Ohio overshadowed by coronavirus Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (D-Mich.), the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told The Hill that committee staff were also “requesting a bipartisan staff-level briefing to understand how this happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening in the future.”

The letters were sent the day after committee member Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump China sanctioning Rubio, Cruz in retaliatory move over Hong Kong The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Negotiators signal relief bill stuck, not dead MORE (R-Mo.) sent a separate missive to Twitter encouraging the company to immediately alert the FBI and the Department of Justice of the incident.

“Millions of your users rely on your service not just to tweet publicly but also to communicate privately through your direct message service,” Hawley wrote. “A successful attack on your system’s servers represents a threat to all of your users’ privacy and data security.”

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenElection security advocates see strong ally in Harris OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Watchdog report raises new questions for top Interior lawyer | Senate Democrats ask Trump to withdraw controversial public lands nominee | Border wall water use threatens endangered species, environmentalists say Watchdog report raises new questions for top Interior lawyer MORE (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, pointed to concerns around the security of Twitter’s direct message system (DMs), noting that Dorsey promised during a meeting with Wyden in 2018 to implement end-to-end encryption on the messages.  

“Twitter DMs are still not encrypted, leaving them vulnerable to employees who abuse their internal access to the company's systems, and hackers who gain unauthorized access,” Wyden said in a statement. “If hackers gained access to users' DMs, this breach could have a breathtaking impact, for years to come.”

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Some members of Congress pointed to the hack as evidence that Congress needs to lead the way on passing legislation to shore up cybersecurity. One of these proposals, which has gained bipartisan support in recent days, is the reestablishment of a national cyber director at the White House to help coordinate federal cybersecurity activity.  

Rep. Jim LangevinJames (Jim) R. LangevinCongress has a shot at correcting Trump's central mistake on cybersecurity House-passed defense spending bill includes provision establishing White House cyber czar Overnight Defense: Space Force chooses 2,410 airmen to join ranks | Fire aboard Navy ship extinguished | Congress backs push for national cyber czar MORE (D-R.I.), a sponsor of the legislation creating the position, told The Hill on Thursday that the Twitter incident underlined “the need to take action now to protect Americans, our assets, and allies.”

“We cannot be timid in our response to this cyber aggression,” he said. 

Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondExperts warn mail-in voting misinformation could threaten elections One way we can honor John Lewis' legacy: Amend the 13th Amendment Lawmakers, public bid farewell to John Lewis MORE (D-La.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s cyber panel, told The Hill that Congress had an “obligation to protect the internet and our constituents who use social media.” Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoCongress must deliver aid and empower localities to continue assisting in COVID-19 response Lawmakers zero in on Twitter following massive hack Democrat Dana Balter to face Rep. John Katko in NY House rematch MORE (R-N.Y.), the ranking member of the panel, told The Hill that social media users need to “remain vigilant and utilize best practices and good cyber hygiene.”

Software group Check Point was among those tracking the Twitter hacking incident as it occurred. Mark Ostrowski, the head of engineering at Check Point US East, told The Hill that in light of millions working remotely, the hack is a reminder for companies to step up their game and educate employees on how to spot malicious cyber activity. 

“This is an eye-opening moment, where companies have to be better equipped for things like spear phishing and limiting access to their internal tools so these things can be avoided in the future,” Ostrowski said. 

Many unanswered questions about the hacking incident remain. 

Twitter gave an update on Thursday afternoon saying no passwords were accessed, but did not answer questions about whether hackers accessed direct messaging for accounts or stole other information.

For Theresa Payton, the White House chief information officer during the George W. Bush administration, these questions kept her up through the night Wednesday, wondering what the hackers were able to access. 

“We don’t actually know what the attackers did with the accounts yet,” Payton, who currently serves as CEO of cyber consultancy group Fortalice Solutions, said. “To me, the jury is out until we understand who the attackers truly were and Twitter does a full forensic investigation of what the attackers did with each and every individual account while they owned them.”

“It will be interesting to see if this was only a cryptocurrency scam,” she said.