Saturday 07 February, 2015
On January 12, 2015, someone claiming to be the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) hacked the United States Central Command’s Twitter and YouTube accounts for a brief period of time. Calling itself the CyberCaliphate, it posted images and updates of a pro-ISIS and anti-US nature and had people at high levels of the United States government scrambling to take care of the situation.
After the attack, defense officials told the public that no sensitive data has been obtained and no military networks breached. Although the media made a huge deal out of the hacking, officials said it was, after all, just Twitter and YouTube. The accounts were suspended for a while and things went quickly back to business as usual.
The Cyber Caliphate
The hackers changed the Twitter avatar @centcom to the image of a masked militant with the legend “CyberCaliphate,” with “I love you ISIS” written underneath. The account then sent out various messages supportive of ISIS and threatening the West, such as, “American soldiers, we are coming, watch your back. ISIS.” It also showed leaked Pentagon images and documents that it claims contained sensitive information.
Meanwhile, the US Central Command’s YouTube channel began showing pro-ISIS propaganda videos.
The hackers apparently decided to leave the Central Command’s Facebook account alone.
More Embarrassing than Destructive
The attack prompted mass hysteria in the media, with pundits later saying that it was more embarrassing than destructive. The hacking happened just as US President Barack Obama was giving a speech on cyber-security.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a press conference responding to the attacks that there was a “difference between a large data breach and the hacking of a Twitter account.” He also said that the White House was investigating the incident.
Furthermore, the New York Times reported later that many of the “classified documents” exposed by the hackers were documents straight out of the public records that anyone could easily access if they have an internet connection.
According to an official statement from the military, “CENTCOM’s operation military networks were not compromised and there was no operational impact to U.S. Central Command. CENTCOM will restore service to its Twitter and YouTube accounts as quickly as possible. We are viewing this purely as a case of cybervandalism.”
“I Love You, ISIS”
Like many others, I don’t believe the attacks were actually from ISIS militants. For one thing, there are plenty of domestic wingnuts with no connection to the group planning attacks and claiming they’re part of it. Second, somehow the legend “I love you, ISIS” just doesn’t sound authentic to me. Hacker group Anonymous claims it’s traced the hacking attack to somewhere in Maryland.
This attack, however, does highlight the vulnerabilities of social networks. But remember that social media is a broadcasting network, not a place where classified information is stored, and not a command center. The attack was scary but ultimately harmless.