For all the concern over cyber warfare and the need to fend off sophisticated state-sponsored hacking attacks, here's a discomforting thought: Apparently all you need to disrupt the world's biggest economy is a stolen Twitter password.
As you know by now, hackers sent out a bogus tweet this week about an explosion at the White House using the Associated Press' account. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index lost $136 billion in market value on the fake news before recovering.
The incident was a vivid reminder of the frailties of computer-based trading as well as social media. But the event also showed in dramatic fashion how one of the most popular social media tools can be used against us in ways far more damaging than an embarrassing tweet.
Misinformation has long been a weapon in warfare. And now Twitter, which received the blessing of the SEC to be a conduit for market-moving news, can also serve as a conduit for deception by foreign enemies.
The Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility for the fake report. On a Twitter page that has now been taken down, the group mocked the news organization's security.
Whether the hackers' true motivation was political, financial or to just show off, it's not clear. Many fake tweets include a link to a malicious site to infect visitors' computers. This one didn't, which means the attackers weren't out to steal personal information, according to Wade Williamson, senior security analyst with Palo Alto Networks.
In response to the attack, Twitter plans to upgrade its security to include features such as being able to use codes sent to smartphones to protect accounts, Bloomberg News reported. No timeline was given. Twitter spokesman Gabriel Stricker did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Regardless of the reasons for the hack, the event showcased a new and relatively simple weapon of cyber warfare and offered a blueprint for future attacks.
"Market manipulation via psychological warfare is now a clear and present danger via cyber," Tom Kellermann, a former security specialist with the World Bank Treasury and currently vice president of cyber security for Trend Micro Inc., wrote in an e-mail. "A brave new world we awaken in."