But while the scope of the incident was massive in its own right — impacting accounts belonging to Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian West and Warren Buffett — it could merely be the tip of a very large iceberg with vast security implications. Cybersecurity experts and policymakers now worry that the bitcoin scam may mask a much more troubling data breach involving the personal communications of the world’s most powerful people.
It still isn’t clear what the attackers’ ultimate goals were. But what little has been revealed about the hack so far has already raised serious concerns from policymakers, security experts and some close to Twitter. With the level of access they enjoyed, the hackers could have triggered a sell-off in the financial markets, issued fake policy pronouncements or disrupted entire presidential campaigns.
“If Ivanka [Trump’s] account were to tweet the extreme hypothetical, ‘I’m so proud of my father tonight for making the hard decisions; nuclear war is never easy, but we’ll win it,’ that would … be problematic,” said an ex-Twitter employee, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a former employer.
Neither Ivanka Trump nor President Donald Trump’s account appeared to have been affected by the hack; the White House declined to comment on the matter Wednesday afternoon.
Those wallets will be forever radioactive as law enforcement eyes them for withdrawals or transfers that could be traced back to the original attackers, said Kenn White, a security principal at the software database company MongoDB.
“Those [bitcoin] addresses will be scrutinized closer than any in history,” he said.
“If you’ve stolen a Ferrari, why just drive around the block?” White said.
As the crisis unfolded Wednesday night, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a major critic of Silicon Valley, sent a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
The Federal Trade Commission is also likely to investigate — opening the door to potential fines or other penalties, according to David Vladeck and Jessica Rich, two former directors of the agency’s consumer protection bureau.
Twitter’s own investigation is still ongoing, and it isn’t clear what data the hackers may have accessed. Twitter also hasn’t disclosed who may have been behind the attack or any information about the targeted employees. Two US intelligence officials told CNN Wednesday night that it is still too early to tell if the attack was the work of a nation state or a state-sponsored actor.
But some security experts are bracing for the worst. By using the hijacked accounts to push a bitcoin scam, the attackers publicly advertised their successful attack — guaranteeing that Twitter would swiftly respond and lock them out, said Theresa Payton, the former White House chief information officer under President George W. Bush.
While that could indicate nothing more than a play for notoriety and a quick cash grab, she said, the hackers could have downloaded information about the accounts for later release — potentially including private messages, photos, phone numbers and email addresses. That would be damaging enough at any time, but during a critical election year in which trust in platforms and their handling of information remain key concerns, the stakes could not be higher.
“Are they going to come back later with a ‘dump and dox’ campaign or a blackmail situation?” said Payton. “We only know about the accounts they flipped with that message. How about all the other accounts they didn’t flip with that message?”