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Hacker break-in of Twitter e-mail

A hacker made off with confidential Twitter documents after breaking into an employee's e-mail account, the company's co-founder confirmed.

Security experts today said that the breach and theft highlights the problem people have with creating, and then remembering, strong passwords, and the increasing tendency to disclose personal information on services like Twitter and Facebook.

“What it boils down to is that people are lazy and lackadaisical about their personal paranoia,” said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security. “People should be thinking twice about what they're making public.”

The breach occurred about a month ago, said Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, when a hacker calling himself Hacker Croll broke into an administrative assistant's e-mail account, then used that to collect information that let him access the employee's Google Apps account. Twitter workers use the corporate version of Google Apps to share documents and other information within the company.

lHacker Croll then forwarded hundreds of pages of internal Twitter documents to Web sites, including TechCrunch, which in turn has published some and referred to others. Among the finds: Financial projections by Twitter that it will have a billion users, $1.54 billion in revenue and $1.1 billion in net earnings by 2013.

The privately held Twitter does not disclose the current number of users or its financials, but some metrics firms estimate the site has six million unique visitors a month. Documents disclosed by TechCrunch said Twitter was projecting 25 million users by the end of this year.

Stone denied reports that a bug in Google Apps was responsible. “This attack had nothing to do with any vulnerability in Google Apps, which we continue to use,” he said in a blog entry yesterday. “This is more about Twitter being in enough of a spotlight that folks who work here can become targets. This was not a hack on the Twitter service, it was a personal attack followed by the theft of private company documents.”

Exactly, said security experts today, who put the blame on a combination of online password retrieval systems and people's disclosure of their personal life on social networking services.

“This has nothing to do with cloud computing,” said Sam Masiello, vice president of information security at Englewood, Colo.-based MX Logic. “It's about weak passwords that are easily guessable, with a huge contribution from people's habit of putting online information that they wouldn't otherwise share with anyone but their closest friends. It's not hard to crack [password resets] with the information you can find freely available on social networking sites.”

For users, Storms had different advice. “For those password reset questions, don't pick one of the defaults,” he said. “If it lets you, type your own question.” Failing that, he recommended something even he said was unusual. “I tell people to lie,” he said, talking about the answers to the password reset questions. “Give a nonsensical answer. If it asks for your shoe size, don't give your shoe size, say 'brown.'” That tactic may sound counterintuitive or confusing at first, “But once you start doing it, you'll be able to remember those answers.”

Twitter has threatened legal action against the sites that have published the stolen documents, but in a relatively low-key way. “We are in touch with our legal counsel about what this theft means for Twitter, the hacker, and anyone who accepts and subsequently shares or publishes these stolen documents,” Stone said in his blog.

Yesterday, TechCrunch's founder and co-editor Michael Arrington acknowledged that the site was in “negotiations with Twitter, or rather Twitter's lawyers” over the publication of a subset of the documents it had been given by Hacker Croll.

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