In the span of two weeks, hackers have broken into more than 2,500 Twitter accounts with large followings, including those of electro-funk duo Chromeo, comedian Azeem Banatwala, football star Cecil Shorts III, and late New York Times journalist David Carr, according to new research by security firm Symantec.
The hacked accounts were then replaced with bots, and used to tweet links to adult dating sites. The victims had their display names changed, with their profile pictures swapped for pictures of scantily-clad women.
While bots are nothing new on Twitter, a platform that’s been plagued with fake accounts for years, this campaign is different because it uses almost exclusively real accounts that got hacked, according to Satnam Narang, the senior security response manager at Symantec, and the one who investigated this campaign. The goal of the criminals behind this operation was obviously to get people to click on the links and direct them to adult sites. That’s why they targeted accounts with a large following, such as Chromeo, which has 119,000 followers.
“Being able to bust into that account, and use that account to post a tweet will make it more likely that people will click to their links compared to someone who has say, 100 followers or 20 followers,” Narang told me. Andrea Stroppa, an independent security researcher who has studied spam on social media in the past, said that this is a good tactic from the perspective of cybercriminals, because they get the hacked account's user base and followers, and even, to a certain extent, the trust they have with their followers.
Narang said that the campaign was likely a success. Given that he only had access to data from the last two weeks, and that the campaign had likely been going on for longer, the 2,500 figure is a conservative estimate. And, according to his analysis, the links got some traction, garnering between 50 and 200 clicks each. The tweet sent from Carr’s account gathered 151 clicks as of Tuesday afternoon.
The big unanswered question is how the sexbots took control of the Twitter accounts. Only Twitter would know, and the company did not respond to a request for comment. But Narang has a theory. Given that most accounts were old (the vast majority were at least four years old), and some were dormant or abandoned, it’s possible the hackers got in by guessing the passwords, perhaps because they were bad passwords, or they were part of another data breach.
It’s unfortunately still very common that people will reuse the same password across websites, so when a big data breach occurs, or a large number of credentials leak, like it recently happened with LinkedIn, hacker are going to try to use those passwords on other services. “However these criminals got into these accounts, I think it was a combination of weak and reused passwords,” Narang said. Yet another reminder that it’s a great idea to use a password manager to create and store unique passwords for each of your sites.