Twitter: Israel, Iran may have accessed users’ phone numbers

The Jerusalem Post – Twitter said it discovered attempts by possible state actors to access the phone numbers, after a flaw in the company’s “contacts upload” feature was found.

Twitter said Tuesday morning that Israel and Iran may have each accessed users’ phone numbers associated with their Twitter accounts.
The social media giant said it had discovered attempts by possible state actors to access the phone numbers, after a security researcher unearthed a flaw in the company’s “contacts upload” feature.

In a statement published on its privacy blog, Twitter said it had identified a “high volume of requests” to use the feature coming from IP addresses in Iran, Israel and Malaysia. There was no implication that some of the countries acted together as much as that each country separately exploited the same flaw.

Without elaborating, Twitter said that “some of these IP addresses may have ties to state-sponsored actors.”

The Jerusalem Post has learned that certain former Israeli intelligence agents have discovered ways to gain backdoor access to various forms of social media platforms. Entities associated with some of these former agents may have used this access in a variety of ways, sometimes including being able to influence political campaigns.

The Post cannot determine whether the former agents learned or used the techniques when they were still working for Israeli intelligence, but there have been a wide number of reports that top intelligence agencies, including American ones, are sometimes able to use such techniques.

Besides brute hacking of social media platforms, it is well known that Russia, Iran and others use Twitter, Facebook and other networks to promote influence campaigns even without needing to hack other real users.

Their tactics have included using “bots” – accounts which pose as people but are actually computer-generated; fictitious accounts – people posing as people who they aren’t; or fictitious ads – state entities posing as fictitious private sector people/companies to buy large volumes of ads without Facebook or Twitter realizing they are selling to state entities (often Russia or Iran), that hide their often anti-Western agenda.

A Twitter spokeswoman declined to say how many user phone numbers had been exposed, saying that the company was unable to identify all of the accounts that may have been impacted.

She said that Twitter suspected a possible connection to state-backed actors because the attackers in Iran appeared to have had unrestricted access to the social media platform, even though the network is banned there.

Tech publication TechCrunch reported on December 24, according to Reuters, that security researcher Ibrahim Balic had managed to match 17 million phone numbers to specific Twitter user accounts by exploiting a flaw in the contacts feature of its Android app. The online publisher said that it was able to identify a senior Israeli politician by matching a phone number through the tool.

The feature, which allows people with a user’s phone number to find and connect with that user on Twitter, is turned off by default for users in the European Union, where stringent privacy rules are in place. It is switched on by default for all other users globally, the spokeswoman said.