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In what has been described as the biggest hack of Twitter ever, unknown cyber assailants took over the Twitter profiles of some of the biggest names on the planet – including Barack Obama, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden – and proceeded to carry out an epic Bitcoin heist that netted the cyber thieves close to $120,000 in just over two hours of work. Overall, the hackers appeared to target 130 high-profile accounts with a combined audience of nearly 300 million people. Twitter was forced into emergency measures, even going so far as to throw the Twitter “kill switch” in order to block tweets from every single verified user on the platform and locking down all compromised accounts for a few hours.
How the Bitcoin scam worked
The scam was a variant of one that many savvy Internet users have known for years: the advance-fee scam. In the days before Bitcoin, this often materialized as the “Nigerian prince” email scam – in order to prove your trustworthiness, you first had to wire money to an offshore bank account and then you would receive untold riches by a random fellow in Africa. In the days of crypto, though, Bitcoin wallets have replaced bank accounts, and tweets have replaced emails.
Every single one of the hacked Twitter accounts led off the scam with something like, “Gee, I’m feeling very generous today. For 30 minutes only, if you send me $1,000, I’ll send you back $2,000.” And who wouldn’t jump at the chance to receive Bitcoin riches from a Twitter celebrity like Bill Gates (51 million followers) or Elon Musk (37 million followers)? In life, though, if it sounds too good to be true (a billionaire is giving me free money via Twitter!), then it probably is. People who sent Bitcoin to the Bitcoin wallet address provided by the hackers lost everything.
More than just a Bitcoin heist?
What’s interesting about the “epic” hack is just how little money it actually made, despite the sophistication of the attack. In today’s world, a Bitcoin hack of “just” $120,000 hardly seems worth the effort. After all, the price of Bitcoin is pushing $10,000 these days, so the hackers basically earned 12 BTC for their efforts. It’s like robbing a bank and deciding not to break into the vault. Most Bitcoin heists you read about on crypto news sites are measured in the millions (or tens of millions) of dollars.
So was it more than just a simple Bitcoin heist? If you like to delve into the conspiracy corners of the Internet (and who doesn’t these days?), then it’s possible that a whole host of other explanations might be at work here. One popular theory is that the hackers weren’t actually after Bitcoin riches – they were actually after the sensitive private information contained within those high-profile Twitter accounts. The “Bitcoin scam” was just a cover story, to keep the authorities off the trail. For example, once you’ve broken into a Twitter account, you also have access to DM message threads between users. Imagine being able to peek into the private conversations that prominent individuals might be having with other people they follow. Who wouldn’t want to see what Bill Gates might be mentioning in his DM threads? From this perspective, the “Bitcoin heist” is really much more akin to a “privacy hack” in which hackers get access to sensitive personal information.
More transparency about how Twitter works
The second possible explanation is that the hack was purposely designed to embarrass Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and throw a spotlight on how Twitter censors, shadow bans, and blocks accounts. From what Dorsey has told Congressional investigators, Twitter doesn’t censor, ban or block information on the platform. But, judging from what we now know about Twitter’s site-wide admin tools – which enable Twitter employees to silence anyone with a flick of the switch – it’s now much more probable that Twitter does alter the content that appears on its platforms in order to prevent certain voices, narratives or discussions from going too far. Notice, too, that many of the people who were hacked – Bloomberg, Bezos, Obama, Biden – fall on the Left side of the political spectrum, and that President Trump’s Twitter feed was apparently not targeted.
A prelude to a big 2020 election hack?
OK, OK, if you don’t believe that theory – how about this one: this Twitter hack is just a precursor to even bigger hacks planned ahead of the 2020 presidential election. One common hacker tactic is to infiltrate a system, study how it works, and then lurk in the background until the time is right to act. That’s the logic behind many social engineering hacks that have targeted social media users – once hackers can find out what types of messages a high-profile person might send out, and who is likely to receive these messages – they can then “social engineer” a hack of epic proportions. Who knows, maybe a compromised Barack Obama account will send out a barrage of pro-Trump tweets in the 24 hours before the election, or a compromised Donald Trump account will have an epic meltdown threatening an imminent hot war with China?
The big picture here is that we should not push this Twitter hack under the carpet and characterize it as “just another Bitcoin hack.” There is substantial risk here that it was NOT just a normal attack, and quite likely, will not be the last one we see in 2020. There could be more to follow either before or after the election, which means that Twitter users need to be more vigilant than ever. Things could get very interesting indeed if Twitter goes into chaos mode in November.