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The campaign launched by the hacktivist group wasn't complex, although it did involve several waves of attacks, resulting in multiple compromised systems and credentials, according to "How the Syrian Electronic Army Hacked The Onion," posted Wednesday to the satire site's Tech Blog.
Here's how the attack commenced: Starting Friday, May 3, a handful of Onion employees received emails that asked them to read a story, and included an apparent Washington Post link. In reality, the link led to a hacked WordPress site, which redirected to a googlecom.comeze.com site that requested their Google Apps credentials, which, if entered, redirected users to their Gmail account.
"These emails were sent from strange, outside addresses, and they were sent to few enough employees to appear as just random noise rather than a targeted attack," according to the Onion's attack overview. "At least one Onion employee fell for this phase of the phishing attack."
[ Is it easier to catch a hacker with honey? Sweet Password Security Strategy: Honeywords. ]
Early Monday morning, attackers used the compromised account to send the same phishing message to more employees. "Coming from a trusted address, many staff members clicked the link, but most refrained from entering their login credentials. Two staff members did enter their credentials, one of whom had access to all of our social media accounts," according to the Onion's recap.
The same day, attackers defaced the Onion's Twitter account page and began issuing bogus tweets. In response, the Onion's IT team issued a company-wide alert, telling all employees to reset their Google Apps passwords. But attackers used another account that they'd compromised to issue their own password-reset warning. To make this third wave of attacks more difficult to detect, attackers cleverly didn't send the phishing email -- which included a "password-reset link" that instead redirected to the malicious phishing website that requested a user's Google Apps credentials -- to any IT employees.
"This third and final phishing attack compromised at least two more accounts," according to the attack overview. "One of these accounts was used to continue owning our Twitter account." At that point, the IT department forced all employees to reset their Google Apps passwords, which allowed them to finally regain control of the accounts and begin a mop-up operation.
The Syrian Electronic Army is allied to the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, and hacktivist group member "Th3 Pr0" told The New York Times that the Onion Twitter account takeover was meant to be revenge for its recent Assad-attributed editorial titled "Hi, In The Past 2 Years, You Have Allowed Me To Kill 70,000 People."
What lessons can be learned from the successful Syrian Electronic Army phishing attack against the Onion? The company's IT team reported that "a few simple security measures" would have blocked the attacks. For starters, the attacker connected to compromised accounts from the IP address 220.127.116.11, which is the same domain used to host a Syrian Electronic Army leaks website. Obviously, blocking all connections from that IP address, or other sites associated with the group, would be a good start.
To help block phishing attacks, the IT team also recommended using one email address system for everyday emails, and an entirely different one for Twitter accounts. In addition, it said that employing an intermediary social media management system such as Hootsuite would make it much more difficult for an attacker to fully compromise an organization's Twitter accounts.
For an industry that's predicated on reporting, it's notable that the Onion is the first news outlet -- satirical or straight -- to detail exactly how its Twitter accounts were owned by the Syrian Electronic Army. That's despite the hacktivist group having exploited the Twitter feeds of such organizations as National Public Radio, Reuters, the BBC and the Guardian.
But the Syrian Electronic Army's most infamous outing to date was its compromise of multiple AP Twitter feeds, which it used to issue a hoax alert that President Obama had been injured in explosions at the White House. The compromise led to reports that Twitter was finally prepping two-factor authentication to help users block some types of account takeovers.
According to the Syrian Electronic Army, it seized control of the AP accounts via a phishing campaign that compromised at least 50 employees at the news agency, including social media editors.
People are your most vulnerable endpoint. Make sure your security strategy addresses that fact. Also in the new, all-digital How Hackers Fool Your Employees issue of Dark Reading: Effective security doesn't mean stopping all attackers. (Free registration required.)