Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/07/20/dziuba_twitter_hack/

Twitter docs hack exploits stupidity vuln

Google Apps and the mental midgets

By Ted Dziuba

Posted in Applications, 20th July 2009 07:14 GMT

Fail and You Over a month ago, a hacker gained access to Twitter's internal documents and thereby introduced the unprofitable Web 2.0 darling to the blunt end of internet justice. Hacker Croll - the still anonymous Frenchman who has claimed responsibility for the attack - cracked the personal e-mail account of a Twitter administrator. In its observance of the San Francisco startup law of relying on free, online productivity suites instead of ponying up to Microsoft for something that actually works, Twitter stores all of its internal documents on Google Docs.

The administrator whose account was hacked used the same password for both his personal e-mail and his Google Docs login. Yes, web applications are sure to overtake desktop applications any day now.

Hacker Croll didn't exploit any software vulnerabilities. He exploited stupidity. To crack this personal e-mail account, all he had to do was answer a security question, which is the same way that a hacker gained access to Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account during the 2008 election.

The major sell of web applications is that you can do your work from any computer that has internet access. Conveniently, anybody who knows your password can also have a field day reading your shit from any computer that has internet access.

Let's think back to the days before journalists who failed at other beats took to pretending that they understood technology on blogs like TechCrunch. Back to the days before some mental midget first typed out the words "Web Operating System" on a crusty laptop keyboard with his breakfast-sausage digits. Back in these days - or today with organizations who have some sensibility about them - what damage could you really cause if you knew somebody's password?

More likely than not, if you had the login information from some office drone who spends his day cultivating a corporate tan under the fluorescent lights of a private, climate controlled hell, you most likely had credentials for a Windows NT domain or Active Directory.

If it's tied to e-mail, then it's a POP/IMAP password or Exchange account. What can you do with this information? Unless there's remote access set up, you'll need to be on the physical network to access file shares. You may be able to access the e-mail account if you can figure out what the IP address of the IMAP or Exchange server is.

In that situation, you need to put a fair bit of effort into finding the entry point for your hack. A username and password? Wow, that's great. But where do you type them in? While that extra layer of obscurity won't stop a determined villain, it's enough to keep your average asshole from getting lucky. Now, however, if you buy into the Web 2.0 happy horseshit about online applications being the future of computing, everybody knows where they can type in a username and password.

All you need to know is how URLs work, and you can guess passwords to your heart's content. For example, Hacker Croll went to http://docs.google.com/a/twitter.com, which is the front door to all of Twitter's corporate data. Anybody who knows Eric Schmidt's e-mail password can go to http://mail.google.com/a/google.com to browse messages.

And just for the sake of completion, if you know a TechCrunch writer's account information can load up http://www.techcrunch.com/wp-login.php and start posting about how online productivity suites will save us all from a hoof to the face by the savage brute in Redmond.

If "not failing at life" is one of your core competencies...

Even without Google Docs's innovative new feature - "run really fucking slow when I'm trying to get work done, and then stop responding to all clicks on UI widgets" - for a sensible IT manager at a high profile organization, storing all of your company secrets on somebody else's servers is probably not the best way to move yourself up the corporate ladder.

At Twitter and elsewhere in San Francisco startup land, there's a strong drive to outsource every aspect of your "business" that's not your core competency. Provided that "not failing at life" is one of your core competencies, it's likely a bad idea to keep critical company information in a place where anybody with an internet connection can take a stab at guessing the password.

When it comes to highlighting the failure of the new way of performing old tasks that's been forced on us by under-confident managers following the advice of overconfident journalists, there is no finer poster child than Twitter. The driving force behind "cloud computing" is that things need not be better so long as they are different, a dogma that Twitter has flagellated its business model with, thinking full well that media hysteria is more valuable than revenue.

Among the documents liberated from Twitter were the notes of a brainstorming session about business plans, the first of which being "verified accounts," so you can pay Twitter for a badge on your page that guarantees it's actually you trying desperately to broadcast your unexceptional life, 140 characters at a time.

The other, more predictable business plan discussed is advertising. Ah yes, the beloved "run a business on AdSense." It's all well and good before you realize that Google has your profit margin's balls in a vise. Twitter is fun and all, but the now public internal discussion about justifying the investment to the venture capitalists shows that yes, at some point in her life, every big-titted fat girl needs to be told flat out that she's nothing more than a big-titted fat girl.

Twitter is understandably butt-hurt over the release of these documents. "We are pursuing a path to address the harm caused by these actions and as noted yesterday, we've already reached out to the partners and individuals affected," founder Biz Stone wrote in a company blog post, referring to TechCrunch's release of some of the Twitter documents, as the editors play Woodward and Bernstein over a collection of bullet points and spreadsheets that would make anyone outside of the tech industry run screaming for the back button.

Yes, nebulous threats of legal action against journalists are best ways to advertise that you're really trying not to be bothered by this sort of public humiliation. But at 158 characters, Biz is woefully over budget.

Twitter is also digging its heels in, refusing to learn the lesson that's been forcibly taught by the steel toed boot of a hacker. "This attack had nothing to do with any vulnerability in Google Apps which we continue to use. This is more about Twitter being in enough of a spotlight that folks who work here can become targets."

I wonder if there are private discussions about the seriousness of this breach and honest considerations of making internal documents actually internal. Given Twitter's track record, we should all know in about six months. ®

Ted Dziuba is a co-founder at Milo.com You can read his regular Reg column, Fail and You, every other Monday.