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The Onion Dissects Recent Syrian Electronic Army Attack

It may seem like an unlikely source for practical advice and a solid incident report, but after their Twitter feed was compromised by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), The Onion (a popular satire news rag) posted solid details on the incident without the usual jokes.

It may seem like an unlikely source for practical advice and a solid incident report, but after their Twitter feed was compromised by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), The Onion (a popular satire news rag) posted solid details on the incident without the usual jokes.

Earlier this week, the Onion’s Twitter feed was compromised by the Syrian Electronic Army, which has made a game out of targeting media accounts (AFP, CBS, AP) in the last month or so, which SecurityWeek has covered extensively. The attacks were so sudden and so popularized that Twitter issued a security alert to media outlets warning them of future attacks.

As it turns out, the SEA uses some common tactics when targeting their victims. In an incident report following the recovery, the Onion explained that the SEA focused mainly on Phishing in order to gain access to the media outlet, targeting staffers via Google Apps.

The Phishing campaign started May 3, and managed to snag one Onion staffer in the process. That single account was then used to send additional Phishing emails, which since they came from a known source that was trusted, snagged two other staffers, one of whom had access to all of the Onion’s 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 Onion incident report explains.

“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.”

Once the attack was underway, the Onion did what it does best, it published some of their special brand of news, which poked fun of the SEA itself. This, however, angered the group who then started publishing editorial email addresses on their Twitter feed.

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“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. In total, the attacker compromised at least 5 accounts,” notes the report.  

“From examining the details of this incident, as well as those effecting the AP, Guardian and others, it’s clear that the SEA is not using complex methods of attack. All of the hacks so far have been a result of simple phishing, or possibly dictionary attacks—all of which are preventable with a few simple security measures.”

Mirroring the advice given by Twitter and other security experts, the Onion advised that organizations make sure their staff is educated about suspicious emails and links that ask them to log in, regardless of who the sender is.

Further, they advised that Twitter (or other social media) accounts should be using email addresses that are segmented from the organization’s normal email, in addition to running Twitter or other accounts through an application of some kinds instead of Web access.

However, it wouldn’t be the Onion without some laughs. So they also offered some recovery advice to their readers in the event that the SEA targets them, including:

– Well, firing your IT person is certainly not a bad place to start.

– Reduce interest in your website by cutting down on stories about very popular subjects, such as Syria.

– Move site to a new web address every few minutes.

– Shoot out an email reminding employees to be really careful online.

– If you receive an unfamiliar email asking for your username and password, don’t delete it right away.

– Dig deeper by inputting your personal information and following the links.

– If your Twitter account is hacked, don’t be afraid to contact Twitter with your concerns. Their world-class tech team will respond in a fastidious manner to get your account up and running again within seconds.

– Transfer over to a weekly print production schedule.

– Remember that, worst comes to worst, it’s just a tweet, and it’s not like anyone’s ever had to apologize for a tweet before.

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