Twitter locks down logins by adding two-factor authentication

Now please lock out the Syrians!


Twitter has joined the growing number of companies offering two-factor authentication to prevent logins being stolen – a fate several high-profile users of its service have suffered recently.

A new checkbox is being added to the Settings pages of Twitter accounts to enable the new feature. When checked, an SMS message containing an authentication code will be sent to a nominated phone before allowing access to the user's account, so long as the phone's carrier supports the function.

"With login verification enabled, your existing applications will continue to work without disruption," Twitter's security team manager Jim O'Leary said in a blog post.

"If you need to sign in to your Twitter account on other devices or apps, visit your applications page to generate a temporary password to log in and authorize that application."

Security is a sensitive topic for Twitter at the moment, thanks to a series of attacks on media sources from the self-styled Syrian Electronic Army (SEA). The hacking group has been hijacking accounts for the last few months to push pranks and propaganda – a tactic that doesn't so much terrorize as mildly inconvenience.

The Dow suffered a blip after the SEA pwned AP's Twitter feed and put out a message about a terrorist attack on the White House. Other hijackings targeted Reuters (repeatedly), AFP, the BBC, and Al-Jazeera, and Twitter was forced to tell the world's hacks to sort themselves out. Then The Onion got hit.

Fight ire with satire

Unlike its companions in the media, The Onion published a full rundown of the tactics and their source, with advice on how to stop this happening in the future. According to its tech support team, the site was hit by a triple-pronged assault on the Google accounts of its staff.

Emails started to appear in Onion inboxes reading "Please read the following article for its importance," and containing a link appearing to lead to a Washington Post piece. The emails weren't spammed out to all staff, just trickle-fed to look like background noise, the tech team recounts.

One employee fell for it (there's always one) and his account was used to forward it on to more staff. This time two staff fell for it, since the source was trusted, but one of them had the passwords for the site's social media accounts.

After discovering the first attack, the tech team sent out a company-wide email warning everyone to change their passwords ASAP. But the hackers had already found an orphaned account and used it to spam out the same link, this time masquerading as a password reset button. Two more employees, one with the Twitter login details, got hijacked.

At this point, The Onion's editorial team got into the fight, publishing a number of stories lampooning the incident with headlines like "Syrian Electronic Army Has A Little Fun Before Inevitable Upcoming Deaths At Hands Of Rebels."

This taunting was too much, and the SEA began using the Twitter feed to post a barrage of propaganda, odd false headlines, and the usual anti-Israel rants. Using the information gained from the posts, the IT team then pushed the red button and forced an email reset on every account.

No lessons learned

But despite the warnings, the SEA attacks have carried on being successful, with the Daily Telegraph and Financial Times both temporarily losing control of their social networking feeds in the last week. It's hardly the hacking Hollywood blockbusters are made of, but sources familiar with the project said the resultant fuss had led to a faster deployment of two-factor.

Twitter is not the first to make two-factor an option, and it had better not be the last. The technology isn't perfect and can still be subverted, but it's a useful protection when the attackers prefer to harvest the low-hanging fruit (as a rule). Some companies, based on current form, should get implement Twitter's system immediately. ®

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