Twitter recently suffered a high-profile cyberattack that compromised the accounts of some of its most famous users, including Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Kanye West. While the hackers only got away with $120,000 in Bitcoin, Twitter is facing intense scrutiny over it’s the effectiveness of its data security safeguards.

According to media reports, hackers were able to obtain an employee’s account information and credentials which they used to gain access to an internal Twitter dashboard. These hackers then used Twitter’s internal administrative tool to lay siege of individual user accounts and perpetrate a Bitcoin scam. The “weak link” in Twitter’s cybersecurity model was none other than its own employee.

Social Engineering Attacks on the Rise

Twitter isn't the first (and won’t be the last) company to suffer a data breach at the hands of an unwitting employee. As companies increase their cybersecurity protection algorithms, hackers are turning to social engineering to sidestep those controls.

The term “social engineering” refers to the art of exploiting human psychology, rather than technical hacking techniques, to gain access to buildings, systems or data. For example, rather than attempting to exploit a software’s vulnerability, hackers will send an email to an employee that purports to be, for instance, from the IT department to trick the employee into providing his password.

In most cases, employees who expose company data actually believe they are doing their job. “People inherently want to be helpful and therefore are easily duped,” said Kevin Mitnick, one of the country’s most notorious hackers. “They assume a level of trust in order to avoid conflict.”

Social engineering attacks have been on the rise in recent years. An estimated 62 percent of businesses experienced phishing and social engineering attacks in 2018. While social engineering schemes can take a variety of forms, phishing attacks are among the most common. As we have discussed in prior articles, phishing scams use email or malicious websites to solicit sensitive information by posing as a trustworthy source, i.e. fellow employee, business partners, vendor, etc. For example, an attacker may send an email seemingly from your company's financial institution that requests account information, often suggesting that there is a problem. Hackers can then use the information provided to gain access to the accounts.

Training Your Employees to Spot Cyber Threats

With so many employees working remotely, COVID-19 is providing fertile ground for cyberattacks. The key to avoiding a social engineering attack is to train employees to never disseminate sensitive information unless they are certain of the identity of the requesting party and confirm that the requesting party should be given access to the information sought. Below are several specific tips from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to help build proper awareness amongst your employees:

  • Be suspicious of unsolicited phone calls, visits, or email messages from individuals asking about internal information. If an unknown individual claims to be from a legitimate organization, verify his or her identity directly with the company.
  • Do not provide personal information or information about your organization, including its structure or networks, unless you are certain that the requesting party has the authority to obtain and receive this information.
  • Do not reveal personal or financial information in an email, and do not respond to email solicitations for this information. This includes following links sent in an email.
  •  Do not send sensitive information over the internet without first checking a website's security. Pay attention to the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) of a website. Look for URLs that begin with "https"—an indication that sites are secure—rather than "http.” Also, look for a closed padlock icon—a sign your information will be encrypted.
  • If you are unsure whether an email request is legitimate, verify it by contacting the company directly. Do not use contact information provided on a website connected to the request; instead, check previous verified communications for reliable contact information.
  • Install and maintain anti-virus software, firewalls, and email filters to reduce unwanted traffic. Also, take advantage of any anti-phishing features offered by your email service provider and web browser.

Lessons from the Twitter Hack

Twitter’s much-publicized hack highlights that data breaches can cause significant reputational harm, particularly if the public perceives that the threat could have been easily thwarted. Employees are vulnerable to social engineering hacks, even at the most tech-savvy companies. With workers increasingly working remotely and conducting business via email, it is imperative that they are trained to safeguard sensitive business data.

If you have questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Maryam Meseha, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-896-4100.