Twitter was hacked this week. Not a few people’s Twitter accounts, but all of Twitter. Someone compromised the entire Twitter network, probably by stealing the log-in credentials of one of Twitter’s system administrators. Those are the people trusted to ensure that Twitter functions smoothly.
The hacker used that access to send tweets from a variety of popular and trusted accounts, including those of Joe Biden, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk, as part of a mundane scam — stealing bitcoin — but it’s easy to envision more nefarious scenarios. Imagine a government using this sort of attack against another government, coordinating a series of fake tweets from hundreds of politicians and other public figures the day before a major election, to affect the outcome. Or to escalate an international dispute. Done well, it would be devastating.
Whether the hackers had access to Twitter direct messages is not known. These DMs are not end-to-end encrypted, meaning that they are unencrypted inside Twitter’s network and could have been available to the hackers. Those messages — between world leaders, industry CEOs, reporters and their sources, heath organizations — are much more valuable than bitcoin. (If I were a national-intelligence agency, I might even use a bitcoin scam to mask my real intelligence-gathering purpose.) Back in 2018, Twitter said it was exploring encrypting those messages, but it hasn’t yet.
Internet communications platforms — such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are crucial in today’s society. They’re how we communicate with one another. They’re how our elected leaders communicate with us. They are essential infrastructure. Yet they are run by for-profit companies with little government oversight. This is simply no longer sustainable. Twitter and companies like it are essential to our national dialogue, to our economy, and to our democracy. We need to start treating them that way, and that means both requiring them to do a better job on security and breaking them up.
In the Twitter case this week, the hacker’s tactics weren’t particularly sophisticated. We will almost certainly learn about security lapses at Twitter that enabled the hack, possibly including a SIM-swapping attack that targeted an employee’s cellular service provider, or maybe even a bribed insider. The FBI is investigating.
This kind of attack is known as a “class break.” Class breaks are endemic to computerized systems, and they’re not something that we as users can defend against with better personal security. It didn’t matter whether individual accounts had a complicated and hard-to-remember password, or two-factor authentication. It didn’t matter whether the accounts were normally accessed via a Mac or a PC. There was literally nothing any user could do to protect against it.
Class breaks are security vulnerabilities that break not just one system, but an entire class of systems. They might exploit a vulnerability in a particular operating system that allows an attacker to take remote control of every computer that runs on that system’s software. Or a vulnerability in internet-enabled digital video recorders and webcams that allows an attacker to recruit those devices into a massive botnet. Or a single vulnerability in the Twitter network that allows an attacker to take over every account.
For Twitter users, this attack was a double whammy. Many people rely on Twitter’s authentication systems to know that someone who purports to be a certain celebrity, politician, or journalist is really that person. When those accounts were hijacked, trust in that system took a beating. And then, after the attack was discovered and Twitter temporarily shut down all verified accounts, the public lost a vital source of information.
There are many security technologies companies like Twitter can implement to better protect themselves and their users; that’s not the issue. The problem is economic, and fixing it requires doing two things. One is regulating these companies, and requiring them to spend more money on security. The second is reducing their monopoly power.
The security regulations for banks are complex and detailed. If a low-level banking employee were caught messing around with people’s accounts, or if she mistakenly gave her log-in credentials to someone else, the bank would be severely fined. Depending on the details of the incident, senior banking executives could be held personally liable. The threat of these actions helps keep our money safe. Yes, it costs banks money; sometimes it severely cuts into their profits. But the banks have no choice.
The opposite is true for these tech giants. They get to decide what level of security you have on your accounts, and you have no say in the matter. If you are offered security and privacy options, it’s because they decided you can have them. There is no regulation. There is no accountability. There isn’t even any transparency. Do you know how secure your data is on Facebook, or in Apple’s iCloud, or anywhere? You don’t. No one except those companies do. Yet they’re crucial to the country’s national security. And they’re the rare consumer product or service allowed to operate without significant government oversight.
For example, President Donald Trump’s Twitter account wasn’t hacked as Joe Biden’s was, because that account has “special protections,” the details of which we don’t know. We also don’t know what other world leaders have those protections, or the decision process surrounding who gets them. Are they manual? Can they scale? Can all verified accounts have them? Your guess is as good as mine.
In addition to security measures, the other solution is to break up the tech monopolies. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have so much power because they are so large, and they face no real competition. This is a national-security risk as well as a personal-security risk. Were there 100 different Twitter-like companies, and enough compatibility so that all their feeds could merge into one interface, this attack wouldn’t have been such a big deal. More important, the risk of a similar but more politically targeted attack wouldn’t be so great. If there were competition, different platforms would offer different security options, as well as different posting rules, different authentication guidelines — different everything. Competition is how our economy works; it’s how we spur innovation. Monopolies have more power to do what they want in the quest for profits, even if it harms people along the way.
This wasn’t Twitter’s first security problem involving trusted insiders. In 2017, on his last day of work, an employee shut down President Donald Trump’s account. In 2019, two people were charged with spying for the Saudi government while they were Twitter employees.
Maybe this hack will serve as a wake-up call. But if past incidents involving Twitter and other companies are any indication, it won’t. Underspending on security, and letting society pay the eventual price, is far more profitable. I don’t blame the tech companies. Their corporate mandate is to make as much money as is legally possible. Fixing this requires changes in the law, not changes in the hearts of the company’s leaders.
This essay previously appeared on TheAtlantic.com.
EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into Czech.
Posted on July 20, 2020 at 8:49 AM •