How celebrity Twitter accounts were hacked, and how it can be stopped in future

Filed Under: Social networks, Spam, Twitter, Video

Wired has published details of how a hacker managed to hack into Twitter's internal systems earlier this week, opening the door for criminals to break into the Twitter accounts of the likes of Britney Spears, Fox News and Barack Obama.

The teenage hacker, who uses the online handle GMZ, claims he gained entry to the micro-blogging site's administrative control panel by using a dictionary password guesser at a Twitter staffer's account.

Unfortunately for Twitter and its hacked users, the staff member had chosen the dictionary word "happiness".

Wired has published a YouTube video made by GMZ, demonstrating the hack in action. Unfortunately the quality of the video capture is very low, but it does appear to demonstrate that any account was accessible.

As their video is so poor, we made our own rather different video to show you the impact of having your Twitter account hacked (with err.. apologies to Danny Kaye):

(Enjoy this video? You can check out more on the SophosLabs YouTube channel and subscribe if you like)

GMZ claims that he did not use other hacked accounts himself, but posted a message on a hacking forum offering access to any Twitter account by request.

What lessons can be learnt from this?

Firstly, you should never use an easy-to-guess password to secure your online website accounts. Using a dictionary word like "Happiness" shows a complete lack of knowledge about how to use computers safely. Twitter could help avoid this problem by insisting that passwords are not known dictionary words, or forcing the use of numbers and other characters (such as underlines, exclamation marks and percentages) in users' chosen passwords.

Secondly, Twitter and other websites should be able to tell when hackers are trying to brute-force their way past a password. GMZ says he ran his automatic password guessing program overnight before it finally broke its way in. There's no reason why Twitter couldn't, say, notice that someone has entered the wrong password three times in a row, and then insist they wait 15 minutes before trying to log in again.

If you use Twitter, don't be a twit. Make sure that you are using a sensible hard-to-crack password today.

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About the author

Graham Cluley is an award-winning security blogger, and veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.