Anatomy of a state-sponsored phishing attack: how the Syrian Electronic Army hacked The Onion

As I blogged earlier this week, the Syrian Electronic Army hacked The Onion's Twitter account and used it to post a bunch of dumb messages attacking Israel, the US, and the UN. Now, the Onion's IT administrators have posted a detailed account of how Syrian hackers used a series of staged and careful phishing attacks to escalate from a single naive user's email credentials to the password for the Onion's social media accounts.

Once the attackers had access to one Onion employee's account, they used that account to send the same email to more Onion staff at about 2:30 AM on Monday, May 6. 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.

After discovering that at least one account had been compromised, we sent a company-wide email to change email passwords immediately. The attacker used their access to a different, undiscovered compromised account to send a duplicate email which included a link to the phishing page disguised as a password-reset link. This dupe email was not sent to any member of the tech or IT teams, so it went undetected. This third and final phishing attack compromised at least 2 more accounts. One of these accounts was used to continue owning our Twitter account.

At this point the editorial staff began publishing articles inspired by the attack. The second article, Syrian Electronic Army Has A Little Fun Before Inevitable Upcoming Deaths At Hands Of Rebels, angered the attacker who then began posting editorial emails on their Twitter account. Once we discovered this, we decided that we could not know for sure which accounts had been compromised and forced a password reset on every staff member's Google Apps account.

I'm impressed by the cleverness of triggering a "password reset" message from the IT team, then sending out fake password-reset messages to users who aren't on the IT team to get them to click on yet another link. Most of the recommendations the IT team make are pretty bland ("educate your users"), but these two reccos are good:

The email addresses for your twitter accounts should be on a system that is isolated from your organization's normal email. This will make your Twitter accounts virtually invulnerable to phishing (providing that you're using unique, strong passwords for every account).


If possible, have a way to reach out to all of your users outside of their organizational email. In the case of the Guardian hack, the SEA posted screenshots of multiple internal security emails, probably from a compromised email address that was overlooked.

How the Syrian Electronic Army Hacked The Onion

(via /.)