Hacktivism: How to Stay One Step Ahead

By Cameron Byers, Technical Engineer

Organizations need to be aware of the changing landscape of non-violent political expression. Socially minded hackers worldwide have expressed themselves in a variety of ways, from attacks against government websites to simple Twitter hacks of celebrities, to sending unintended endorsements of a political view or vote.

Hidden dangers of free expression

Social media sites have created a wide awareness of world events and changes, beyond that available from the typical media news outlets. With these new outlets, however, come many hidden dangers for political parties, businesses and individuals. Access to their websites, online profiles, Twitter feeds, contact lists, and business Facebook sites, allows another type of expression by discontented and tech-savvy users.

These users, who portray themselves as social advocates for justice and change in society, practice what is called hacktivism.

Although many individuals see hacktivism as a relatively benign form of political expression on the Internet, no different than a common street protester holding a sign in front of city hall, the act of hacking a user’s account or site is in fact a criminal offense. And the organization affected can suffer dramatic reputation losses, due to negative perceptions by their clients or other companies about their lack of security.

Public relations nightmare

Security for a business’ social media accounts is generally regarded as a low priority for many companies. Access to Twitter feeds or Facebook sites is often given to a marketing team or the new intern who understands the power of reaching customers with these sites.

The danger of these sites, however, is that having access to all of those customers means that communication with them can be greatly affected by the loss of a simple password. Once an account has been compromised, the online presence is quickly tainted by a hacker’s chosen political or social message.

These messages, unlike a typical attack against a web server or individual user’s email account, are wide-open and immediately known by the online community, creating a public relations nightmare exercise (after the account is reclaimed) on calming users regarding the security of their data. After all, if you can’t keep your marketing team’s password secure, how secure can you keep users’ accounts and credit card information?

Protecting your accounts and servers

Mitigating exposure of your accounts and systems to hacktivism (or hacking in general) should always be part of a comprehensive security strategy. A few important parts to this strategy:

  • Access to social media accounts such as Facebook or Twitter feeds via your corporate account should be limited to specific personnel and governed by a policy of password enforcement and rotation.
  • To limit downloading of malware (such as key loggers or password grabbers) by your users, a web content filtering system should be used. Such a system will enforce safe website access as well as scan for malware and viruses that could give a hacker account information or remote access to a user’s system.
  • Always ensure that web servers and public-facing portals are protected behind an active intrusion-prevention system or web application firewall that actively scans content uploaded or downloaded from your websites.

An effective security policy, with centralized enforcement through the use of a unified threat management system such as the Sophos Security Gateway, will help your organization to avoid becoming a targeted political victim.