Rather than being able to directly hack the website, which was used by President Obama for his 2008 and 2012 election campaigns -- and which now supports his presidential agenda -- the Syrian hackers appear to have gained access to a control panel for the ShortSwitch link-shortening service used by the site.
The hackers, who back the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, altered all of the short links used by Obama's website and social media accounts, redirecting them to a "Syria Facing Terrorism" video on YouTube, which has since been removed. In other words, anyone who clicked on a link in Obama's Twitter feed, which counts 39 million followers, or Facebook page, which has been "liked" 37 million times, would have been redirected to pro-Assad propaganda.
[ Two-factor security can help, but it can pose problems also. Read Twitter Two-Factor Lockout: One User's Horror Story. ]
In keeping with the terrorism theme, the hackers tweeted from the @Official_SEA16 Twitter account Monday: "We accessed many Obama campaign emails accounts to assess his terrorism capabilities. They are quite high." They added: "Obama doesn't have any ethical issues with spying on the world, so we took it upon ourselves to return the favor."
The SEA apparently gained access to the ShortSwitch account tied to Obama's site by first hacking into multiple Gmail accounts used by Organizing for Action (OFA), a nonprofit that advocates for Obama's agenda and also maintains the BarackObama.com website. The Gmail hacking victims included the OFA's Suzanne Snurpus, who's the site administrator.
A self-proclaimed SEA spokesman confirmed Monday that the hackers obtained the ShortLink account credentials from OFA staff members' Gmail accounts. "As you might expect all the necessary information was in their emails," he told Mashable. "They didn't even enabled [sic] two-step verification." That's a reference to Google's two-factor authentication system, which would have blocked the attackers from hijacking the victims' Gmail accounts.
The OFA's Snurpus confirmed to Quartz that her Google account -- together with "lots" of her fellow volunteers -- had been compromised, but said they had regained control of their accounts. "We've all changed our passwords and added an extra layer of login security," she said.
OFA officials have said that the SEA never had direct access to Obama's Facebook page or Twitter feeds.
The SEA's hack of the Obama website and social media accounts recalls its takedown of satirical news site The Onion. In that case, the SEA sent emails containing links to purported news stories, but which really lead to a fake site that requested the viewer's Google Apps credentials to log in. Falling for the ruse, however, simply gifted related access credentials to the SEA, which ultimately seized control of The Onion's Twitter feed and posted hoax messages.
Security experts said that in both cases, the moral of the story is to always activate Google's two-factor authentication, which is free. "Two-factor authentication for email is an important security feature that should be enabled," according to a blog post from Symantec. "Two-factor authentication would have helped the staff members of OFA mitigate an attempt by hackers to obtain access to the Obama campaign's Google Apps email account." It added that "Google Apps administrators also have the option to 'enforce' two-factor authentication, making it mandatory for all users of that domain."