Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

The Twitterhack Is Cloud Computing’s Wake-Up Call: Time for Security That Works

stealingOne downside of being the world’s most talked-about start-up: You become an irresistible target for hackers.

Now Twitter, which has suffered multiple security breaches in the past, has been punctured again. Someone has gotten into the personal Web services accounts of co-founder Evan Williams, his wife and at least one other Twitter employee, and used that access to make off with a pile of confidential company documents. He’s now distributing them on the Web, and TechCrunch promises to publish many of them.

The media ethics colloquy is well underway and will go on for a while (Boomtown’s Kara Swisher is holding her session, appropriately enough, via Twitter). Beyond that, I’m pretty sure Twitter is going to be okay when this dies down.

Based on Williams’s description of the attack (see the bottom of this post), as well as both TechCrunch’s and the hacker’s descriptions of what got pilfered, this looks roughly akin to having your underwear drawer rifled: Embarrassing, but no one’s really going to be surprised about what’s in there.

The hack certainly will be worrisome for people who are using, or thinking about using, any kind of “cloud computing,” whereby work data/documents are stored on servers accessed via the Web. Google (GOOG) in particular is going to get some scrutiny, both because it’s Google and because it appears that a lot of this stuff was stolen after the hacker used Google’s “password recovery” system to root around. UPDATE: Twitter is now going out of its way to say that the attack isn’t Google’s fault, but Twitter’s fault for using passwords that are easy to guess.

Albert Wenger, a partner at Twitter investor Union Square Ventures, says in a post that his shop is currently considering moving its systems to Gmail and Google Docs, but notes the big problem: “The threat of access by a third party increases exponentially with the move to the cloud, because the machines that now contain the documents and the links to those documents (as sent by email) are accessible to the Internet at large.”

But cloud computing isn’t going away, so someone’s going to need to figure out how to make security better, yet still practical. There’s a reason no one follows the standard advice about having a different, impossible-to-remember password for every account you have. Wenger takes a stab at it in post–he suggests something tethered to a mobile phone. But whoever figures it out is going to have a lot of fans.

Williams’s description of the hack, via TechCrunch:

Yes, we did suffer an attack a few weeks ago and are familiar with this list of stuff. This is unrelated to the hack of twitter where someone gained access to user’s accounts. This had nothing to do with the security of twitter.com, and there were no user accounts compromised here.

Some notes:

- He did not actually gain access to my @ev Twitter account (or any Twitter accounts) nor any administrative functions of the site.
- There is also no evidence that he gained access to my email. There was one administrative employee who’s email was compromised, as was my wife’s Gmail account, which is where he got access to some of my credit cards and other information.
- He also successfully targeted a couple other employees personal accounts (Amazon, AT&T, Paypal…)

In general, most of the sensitive information was personal rather than company-related. Obviously, this was highly distressing to myself, my wife, and other Twitter employees who were attacked. It was a good lesson for us that we are being targeted because we work for Twitter. We have taken extra steps to increase our security, but we know we can never be entirely comfortable with what we share via email.

[Image credit: Wikimedia Commons]


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