Social Media Enables Hacking Campaigns

For better and for worse, social media has transformed the world in which we live.  Generation “Z” grew up with it, millennials struggle to remember a time without it, and even baby boomers have grown to love it!  From Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and Snapchat, social media platforms have connected people in ways never seen before. However, thousands of hackers have taken advantage of digital accounts to deceive and profit off their virtual connections – The victims vary but can even include trained U.S. intelligence officials.  A former trusted U.S. official used social media to digitally attack her comrades. It is hard to blame Facebook for the treason or the naivety of trained experts.

Facebook – the scapegoat

Of all the social media platforms readily available to us, Facebook is by far the most popular.  As of 2018, the company had an average of 2.27 billion monthly users. Although it has a wide range of functions, Facebook primarily serves as a communication tool for family, friends, and co-workers.  At no storage or usage costs users can send as many video and photos to others in their networks. And, of the many applications, Facebook users also have the option to create and join public and private events, groups, and networks.  This connectivity allows them to discuss relevant topics with technology tools they would not be able to individually afford.

As used and useful as Facebook has become, it also serves as a haven for individuals impersonating and spoofing the identity of others.  Fake profiles are created by those seeking to launch criminal activity from the platform and others who just want to communicate as someone they are not.  

This proved no different when ex Air Force specialist, Monica Elfriede Witt, assisted Iranian hackers.  She used a fictious profiles to launch a basic social media hacking campaign against U.S. intel officers.  

Iranian Hackers

Monica Witt was a trusted U.S. intelligence person who decided to join the fight against “the West” in cooperation with Iran.  She fled to Iran in 2013, d delivered the Iranian Government details of U.S. Department of Defense programs, both unclassified and classified.  This information was used to develop a robust campaign designed to deceive and gain access to additional U.S. secrets. Iranian hackers made use of her contribution and targeted intelligence officials through Facebook.  

Ms. Witt’s colleagues were impersonated of the Facebook platform to gain the trust of other intel community members.  Unknowingly, the U.S. intelligence officials accepted the hacker’s friend requests while signed into their personal Facebook accounts on U.S. government computers.  After developing relationships and gaining their trust, hackers deployed a series of phishing attacks disguised as links in various Facebook groups that included several other intel agents.

As the people accepting the new relationships and accessing the groups through use of the provided links, intelligence officials became the insider threat.  The exploits consisted of both malware and ransomware. The goal was to compromise sensitive data and disrupt networks, eventually allowing the infiltration and weaken of national security systems.

Somewhere in the training of these officials, information about phishing attacks was overlooked.  First, why was there access to Facebook from the device and secondly, who was minding the digital environment of our trained U.S. human assets?  

Back to Basics

Ms. Witt, along with her co-conspirators, were recently indicted by a grand jury for delivering national defense information to the Iranian government and attempted government computer intrusion.  The indictment explained she divulged “details of ongoing counterintelligence operations, true names of sources, and the identities of U.S. agents involved in the recruitment of those sources.” All of which was made possible by basic technologies and one social media platform.  The power for anyone to launch a basic Facebook hacking campaign is undeniably terrifying, yet impressive. The trust we place in our virtual “friends” can lead us astray, and in this case, to a national security breach. It is evident that social media affords cybercriminals a disguise that can be hard to uncover and therefore clouts our judgement.  Nonetheless, everyone, especially members of the Intelligence community, must be cautious while surfing the web and engaging with others on social media.  Phishing attacks are not only limited to links. They can be images, attachments, and even GIFs. So, beware because those GIFs might not be as funny after your credentials are stolen.

Seasoned hackers will not stop at basic hacking campaigns, which means our safety relies on practicing good cyber hygiene and self-awareness.  Maybe frequently changing our passwords and doing things like installing two factor authentications is annoying, but it will certainly help protect your private information from being accessed by nefarious actors.  However, nothing technological will stop us from being stupid. At some point, you should just know better.