THE social media giant Twitter has become the latest victim of cyber-attacks against media companies after it emerged that hackers may have gained access to information on 250,000 of its more than 200 million users.
The company said it detected attempts to gain access to its user data last week. It shut down one attack moments after it was discovered.
But Twitter found that the attackers may have stolen user names, email addresses and encrypted passwords belonging to 250,000 users they describe as “a very small percentage of our users”. Nonetheless, the company reset the pilfered passwords and sent emails advising the affected users.
The online attack comes after recent hacks into the computer systems of US media and technology companies, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Both American newspapers reported this week that their computer systems had been infiltrated by China-based hackers, likely to monitor media coverage the Chinese government deems important.
China has been accused of mounting an aggressive cyber-spying campaign for years, trying to steal classified information and corporate secrets and to intimidate critics. But the Chinese government has said those accusations are baseless and that China itself is a victim of cyber-attacks.
“Chinese law forbids hacking and any other actions that damage Internet security,” the Chinese Defence Ministry recently said. “The Chinese military has never supported any hacking activities.”
Although Twitter’s director of information security, Bob Lord, said that the attack “was not the work of amateurs, and we do not believe it was an isolated incident”.
“The attackers were extremely sophisticated, and we believe other companies and organizations have also been recently similarly attacked,” Lord said.
“For that reason we felt that it was important to publicise this attack while we still gather information, and we are helping government and federal law enforcement in their effort to find and prosecute these attackers to make the Internet safer for all users.”
One expert said that the Twitter hack probably happened after an employee’s home or work computer was compromised through vulnerabilities in Java, a commonly used computing language whose weaknesses have been well publicised.
Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy and security researcher, said such a move would give attackers “a toehold” in Twitter’s internal network, potentially allowing them either to sniff out user information as it travelled across the company’s system or break into specific areas, such as the authentication servers that process users’ passwords.