A Lesson from Twitter

Today, I got a curious e-mail from Twitter:

Hi, zancarius

Twitter believes that your account may have been compromised by a website or service not associated with Twitter. We’ve reset your password to prevent others from accessing your account.

You’ll need to create a new password for your Twitter account. You can select a new password at this link: [redacted]

As always, you can also request a new password from our password-resend page: https://twitter.com/account/resend_password

Please don’t reuse your old password and be sure to choose a strong password (such as one with a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols).

In general, be sure to:

Always check that your browser’s address bar is on a https://twitter.com website before entering your password. Phishing sites often look just like Twitter, so check the URL before entering your login information!
Avoid using websites or services that promise to get you lots of followers. These sites have been known to send spam updates and damage user accounts.
Review your approved connections on your Applications page at https://twitter.com/settings/applications. If you see any applications that you don’t recognize, click the Revoke Access button.

For more information, visit our help page for hacked or compromised accounts.

(Before you ask, yes this did come from Twitter.)

It turns out that my Twitter account had been compromised. I hadn’t posted anything since 2011, and I seriously doubt I logged into Twitter any time recently on my browser (though I probably have it active on a mobile device–I just never check it). This was puzzling to me, as I thought I had used a random password on the account as per my usual habit.

Except that I hadn’t. Instead, I had used a simple throw away that could’ve been relatively easy to brute force given sufficient time. This was entirely my fault, and while there’s no excuse for it, I admit that I hadn’t ever thought enough of using Twitter to protect the account. Furthermore, the account was created circa 2009 when I used to use fairly simple passwords for throwaways and strong passwords for accounts I wanted to protect (my personal e-mail accounts use > 40-70 character pass-phrases, for example). So, this was entirely my mistake, and while it’s plausible that I may have given access to a 3rd party to tweet on my behalf, I suspect this isn’t the case; there were no apps listed in the authorized application list, and the Twitter e-mail strongly hints that they will remain there until manually removed.

So, lesson learned I suppose.

However, this did present a unique opportunity to learn from one of the top social networking sites in the world. Rather than closing accounts or granting spammers free reign, Twitter resets the account password and sends a polite notice to the e-mail address registered for the account indicating what the problem is and how to rectify it. It’s a brilliant idea, I think, and I’d love if more sites followed suite. After all, spammers are using similar tactics elsewhere (including Youtube) to exploit accounts that might otherwise hold good standing with the community to continue their nefarious activities. Plus, is it really fair to terminate someone’s account that’s been compromised, just because it was used to spam? I don’t think so–not anymore.

The other lesson in all of this is to use strong passwords even for accounts you don’t think you’ll use again. It can affect your reputation, it can cause embarrassment, and it feels unnaturally violating to see spammy comments from an account with your picture on it. While my account was only used for two spam tweets before Twitter shut it down, the sensation of such violation wrought deep into my core.

For a couple of years, I’ve been using the excellent KeePass password storage application (more specifically, the KeePassX v2 port) to generate and store random passwords. The tactic of generating random passwords is increasingly more and more viable as forum software (like vBulletin) exhibits such strong weaknesses that MD5-hashed passwords are no longer strong enough to protect against attackers with even modest resources. By using randomly generated passwords, even if one is compromised, you don’t have to worry about an attacker gaining access to other accounts–or to the mental algorithm you use to generate passwords you can remember.

That said, for my most important accounts, I do use fairly lengthy pass-phrases. By mixing KeePass with pass-phrases, I can save my mental energies for remembering those passwords that are the most important, and offload the remainder of the work to the computer. So far, it’s worked fairly well. Twitter being the only account I’ve had compromised due to forgetting to change the password to something random and having used an older throw-away password, being somewhat “cutesy” (or so I thought) in the process, serves as a good testament to this. It doesn’t mean I won’t have another account compromised, but it does dramatically reduce the probability. The fact that an account I seldom used was compromised helped push me into action to reset some of my more important passwords and to verify the ones that I have collected to ensure they meet my criteria of strong and random.

So, even if you have an account you never think you’ll use again, be absolutely certain you use a strong (preferably random) password or pass-phrase. After all of this nonsense, I think I might have to go back to using my Twitter account. At least I didn’t lose it; all I lost was some face (but I have hardly any followers whom I don’t personally know in real life… so does it really matter?).

The other moral in all of this is that such compromises can hit anyone. Even you.

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