In July 2020, one of the biggest celebrity hackings in social media history took place and the man responsible has only just been brought to justice. 23-year-old Joseph James O’Connor, also known as PlugwalkJoe, pleaded guilty to the case in New York on Tuesday, The Guardian reports.
The infamous July 2020 Twitter hack affected over 130 accounts including high-profile individuals such as Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Floyd Mayweather, Kanye West and Mike Bloomberg to name just a few.
Investigating The Events That Led To Trial
In the hack, O’Connor hijacked numerous Twitter accounts and sent out tweets asking followers to send Bitcoin to an account, promising to double their money with the following statement:
“I am giving back to my community due to Covid-19! All Bitcoin sent to my address below will be sent back doubled. If you send $1,000, I will send back $2,000!…Only doing this for the next 30 minutes! Enjoy.”
Besides O’Connor, the US Department of Justice has also released that Sussex-based Mason Sheppard, also known as Chaewon, US teenager Graham Ivan Clark and Florida-based Nima Fazeli were also compatriots in the crime.
It was achieved by the attackers telephoning a small number of Twitter employees and convincing them to hand over their internal login details – which eventually granted the hackers access to Twitter’s powerful administrative tools.
Whilst Clark already pleaded guilty in 2021, it was only in the New York trial on Tuesday that O’Connor was brought under charges which were described by assistant attorney general Kenneth Polite Jr of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division as “flagrant and malicious”, adding that O’Connor’s conduct “impacted multiple people’s lives”.
Alongside the celebrity hacking in 2020, O’Connor was also convicted of participating in the exploitation of social media accounts, including Twitter and gaining access to a high-profile TikTok account, as well as online extortion and cyberstalking.
The US justice department has also reported that O’Connor used technology to stalk a minor
“He harassed, threatened, and extorted his victims, causing substantial emotional harm,” My Polite Jr continued.
“Like many criminal actors, O’Connor tried to stay anonymous by using a computer to hide behind stealth accounts and aliases from outside the United States.”
“But this plea shows that our investigators and prosecutors will identify, locate, and bring to justice such criminals to ensure they face the consequences for their crimes.” the attorney finished.
Similarly to O’Connor, Sheppard, who was just 19 at the time when the hacking took place in 2020, has also been charged with multiple crimes on top of the part he played in the celebrity hacking.
In addition to the hacking, Sheppard has also been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and the intentional access of a protected computer.
O’Connor was arrested in Spain on April 26 and was brought under a sentence this Tuesday under charges which carry a total maximum sentence of more than 70 years in prison.
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Just One Part Of A Larger Problem
The 2020 hacking had huge repercussions. An estimated 350 million Twitter users saw the suspicious tweets from the verified accounts and thousands fell for the scam, trusting that the crypto giveaway was real.
Although this criminal hack proved seriously damaging, cyber experts have agreed that the consequences could have been far worse if O’Connor and Co had used a more sophisticated plan than just a Bitcoin-related prank.
What if the conspirators had tweeted fake news about the Coronavirus pandemic at a time when it was at its height? Or about something that could have affected political discourse or major financial markets?
The fact that such young amateur hackers could get such easy access to some of the largest and most high-profile accounts on Twitter is a big worry and a sign of just how weak the social media platform’s security was at the time.
All the hackers needed to do was use a couple of simple tricks to get access to the internal control panel of one of the largest platforms in the world – something that was undoubtedly very embarrassing for the company as well as dangerous for its users.
Unfortunately, the hacking of O’Connor and his conspirators has drawn attention to the larger issue of hacking. Last year, Forbes reported that “despite global efforts, every subsequent year the numbers get worse and show that we are far from being able to mitigate and contain the numerous cyber-threats targeting both industry and government.”
“As cyberattacks grow in both number and sophistication, organisations are increasingly under the gun to protect themselves from compromise. Though companies have responded by upping their security budgets and adopting more advanced defences, keeping up with the threats that will surface over the next few years will be a challenge.”
One of these new threats that companies will need to face is the progression of artificial intelligence (AI) as it gets increasingly developed.
Michel Chbeir, a security consultant with a focus on cybersecurity, warns of the dangers of AI hackers: “AI systems can be used to hack society and be hackers themselves, exploiting vulnerabilities in social, economic, and political systems at an unprecedented scale and speed.”
“The consequences could lead to a future where AI systems hack other AI systems, causing humans to be collateral damage.”
In order to keep cyber infrastructure safe, it is imperative that companies, particularly large social media platforms such as Twitter, focus on finding innovative ways to step up to this cyber challenge which is posing an increasingly worrying threat to our digital society.