Why None of us are Above Cyber Attacks: How Hackers Broke into John Podesta and Colin Powell’s Gmail Accounts

Why None of us are Above Cyber Attacks: How Hackers Broke into John Podesta and Colin Powell’s Gmail Accounts

It’s fair to say that when it comes to high profile cyber security failures, the past twelve months have seen more than their fair share.

As if the loss of customer data in TalkTalk-gate wasn’t enough, 2016 brought fresh attacks on the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) network, costing a number of banks both their reputations and tens of millions in losses. But why do security breaches keep befalling global giants who pump millions into their cyber security initiatives?

Computer keyboard secured with chain and padlock representing cyber security

Organisations or individuals?

When reports of cyber-attacks hit the headlines, the press are quick to condemn the overarching failings of the organisations in question. Given that global consumer businesses are in possession of vast amounts of private customer data, it’s little wonder that the kneejerk reaction to security failures on this scale is anger. But with user error often relegated to a single line in damming press pieces, it’s easy to miss a common trend across many of these cases: that initial access to an otherwise secure system was granted by the accidental opening of an email, or a click on a seemingly innocuous link by somebody within the organisation.

If we’re looking for evidence in support of this statement, all we need do is delve a little deeper into the mountain of reports into these instances that are available on the web. In fact, one report published earlier this year in the Federal Times noted that as much as fifty percent of all cyber breaches and data leaks can be attributed to human error.

In short, in this era of increasingly sophisticated cyber threats, a critical truth remains: your firewall can be as sophisticated as you like, but it means nothing if your people aren’t armed with the right knowledge.

Falling foul of cybercriminals can happen to anyone

In spite of the usual dialogue of blame that implies a certain ‘stupidity’ on the part of the staff in question, the reality of human-error data breaches is that they happen often enough to highlight a genuine problem with education around information security. There was perhaps a time when malicious phishing emails were laughably obvious, but with the ever-increasing sophistication of available technology, and smarter social engineering, falling foul of a cyber-attack can quite literally happen to anyone.

Never has this been illustrated more than by the recent email leaks from senior officials in Hillary Clinton’s US presidential election campaign.

Hillary Clinton talking on Paris TV last year

Case in point: How hackers infiltrated the Clinton Clan

Back in March, John Podesta – former chief of staff to the Whitehouse and Chairman of the 2016 Clinton campaign – received an email that appeared to come from Google. It wasn’t until some months later, in October of this year, when hundreds of Podesta’s private personal emails began to appear on WikiLeaks that officials were alerted to any data breach. Rather than a legitimate Google security alert, what Podesta had received was a well-disguised phishing message designed to dupe him into giving up the password to his Gmail account.

Of course when news of the hack broke, people were quick to point the finger at Russia. With mounting international tensions, and the profile of notorious hacking group Fancy Bears continuing to rise, such accusations were hardly unexpected.

The phishing email sent to John Podesta by Fancy Bears

The subsequent investigation into exactly where this particular email came from claimed to have traced the malicious URL contained within it to a single account on the popular URL shortening service, Bitly. Using a Bitly short-link, hackers concealed a longer link which, to the untrained eye, looked very much like a legitimate Google URL. Within this was a 30-character string that contained the encoded Gmail address of John Podesta.

Screen grab showing the malicious bitly link responsible for the Podesta hack

The Bitly account used in this attack was found to be the very same one responsible for generating malicious short links used in a significant number of other hacks on members of the National Democratic Committee (including one on former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, where his private emails later appeared on the website DC Leaks.) Investigators at cyber firm SecureWorks also claimed to have been able to trace ownership of the Bitly to a domain under the control of Fancy Bears when they discovered that privacy settings had not been activated on the account.

Using Bitly allowed third parties to see their entire campaign including all their targets— something you'd want to keep secret - Tom Finney, Researcher at SecureWorks

“It’s unclear why the hackers used the encoded strings, which effectively reveal their targets to anyone,” said Kyle Ehmke, a threat intelligence researcher at security firm ThreatConnect. “[Perhaps] the strings might help them keep track of or better organize their operations, tailor credential harvesting pages to specific victims, monitor the effectiveness of their operations, or diffuse their operations against various targets across several URLs to facilitate continuity should one of the URLs be discovered.”

As it stands, investigators have drawn connections between nearly 9000 malicious phishing emails used to target 4000 individuals across the US and Europe – all seemingly originating from Fancy Bears. The Podesta hack was not the first time the Bears have made the headlines; their connections to the Kremlin have remained the subject of speculation for some time following their meteoric rise to media fame when they leaked documents from WADA (The World Anti-Doping Agency) incriminating American athletes. Whether there is any truth in claims of suspected Russian ties remains to be seen – but if the authorities are in possession of any hard evidence, such information is unsurprisingly not in the public domain.

The use of popular link shortening services such as Bitly or Tinyurl [that left an uncharacteristic trail] might have a simple explanation - the hackers probably wanted to make sure their phishing attempts went past their targets' spam filters - Thomas Rid, King's College London

What we do know is that in Podesta’s case, something as simple as apparently legitimate account security email has led even some of the most tech-savvy figures down the rabbit hole.

Phishing emails that even evaded Clinton’s IT team

Perhaps the most surprising thing of all in this account is the fact that John Podesta did actually report the email to his IT officers as suspicious – and was reassured that the request to reset is password was indeed ‘legitimate’:

[caption id="attachment_5470" align="aligncenter" width="519"]The email from Podesta's IT team saying the phishing email was legitimate To his credit, Mr Delavan does advise that Podesta uses an alternative (authentic) link to change his Gmail password, but was clearly also under the impression that this was a genuine Google security alert.[/caption]

Clearly, Podesta had some awareness of phishing emails as a means to obtaining sensitive private data, but was ultimately still duped into giving hackers access to his account and surrendering sensitive private information to criminals.

Comment from Bitly

When avid tech-reporters Motherboard published their original series of articles covering the Clinton campaign hacks, they approached Bitly directly for comment. Their official reply, amongst stating that they ‘can only do so much’ when it comes to preventing use of their services for unlawful or malicious purposes, read as follows:

"The links and accounts related to this situation were blocked as soon as we were informed. This is not an exploit of Bitly, but an unfortunate exploit of Internet users through social engineering. It serves as a reminder that even the savviest, most sceptical users can be vulnerable to opening unsolicited emails.” - Bitly, speaking to Motherboard

Lessons learnt – how do businesses protect themselves against cybercrime?

Irrespective of their size or stature, no firm wants to fall foul of cybercriminals. The reality is that the ‘wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing’ analogy runs deep – within an organisation as high-profile as the Clinton camp, even seasoned IT security professionals were tricked into believing that a phishing email sent to one of their most prominent officials was legitimate.

As the tech world continues to advance, there will always be instances where data breaches and malicious attacks mounted on organisations by cybercriminals will be effective. This said, with an estimated fifty-percent of cyber security breaches attributed to human error, businesses need to view the education of their entire workforce as a critical line in the defence against hackers and cybercrime.

“We are all vulnerable, regardless of role or seniority”, says Mark Logsden, former Head of Cyber Security at AXELOS Global Best Practice. “The most effective way of managing this risk is via a good cyber awareness programme that promotes good cyber behaviours and teaches all staff about their role in maintaining the cyber resilience of the company.”


Still want more? Check out these other interesting resources The fantastic original Motherboard article on the Podesta hack Another piece on how Clinton's IT team were duped by hackers Interactive visualisation of the world’s biggest data breaches by sector/fault Cyber Security Training from Unicorn in partnership with AXELOS GBP


Abi Pears

Abi Pears

Head of Marketing

Abi is a Marketing professional with a passion for storytelling, quality and delivering outstanding…

View articles by author

Subscribe to the Unicorn newsletter for the latest updates

Please complete missing fields or check information is correct.