Passwords used by people employed by US federal, state and local governments were among those disclosed by the Gawker hack over the weekend, according to a report by PBS NewsHour on Monday.
If the passwords published online by the Gnosis hacker group were also used by those people for their work e-mail accounts, the passwords could be used in future targeted attacks against government employees to plant malware or steal other information.
PBS NewsHour has identified a subset of the 1.3 million accounts accessed in the Gawker hack that included an unknown number of accounts with the .gov domain, including ones from the Department of Defense, NASA, National Institute of Health and the US Postal Inspection Service.
Employees at agencies in several states, ranging from Idaho to Virginia, were also among those whose addresses and passwords were harvested.
Gnosis' list of compromised e-mail addresses and passwords has been published on the Internet, and is readily available to anyone, other hackers included, via a BitTorrent download.
A message on a chat room used by Anonymous the hacker group responsible for several distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks last week against companies that terminated services to WikiLeaks for disclosing thousands of US diplomatic messages indicated that the addresses and passwords would be used to compromise accounts to obtain more information.
"If the people in this dump have admin/mod rights there maybe [sic] other sensitive information worth disclosing to the Internet," the chat room message quoted by PBS NewsHour said. "Scrape any and all information you can and dont [sic] be XXXXing stupid, these are government officials, use many layers of proxies and report back any lulz [laughter at someone else's expense] to (REDACTED)."
On Sunday, Gawker Media, which operates several popular technology sites, including Gizmodo and Lifehacker, confirmed that its servers had been hacked , and that hundreds of thousands of registered users' e-mail addresses and passwords had been accessed. A group calling itself "Gnosis" claimed credit for the attack, and said it had obtained information associated with more than 1.3 million accounts.
Gawker apologised for the breach and urged users to change their passwords. If that password was used for accessing other sites or for other e-mail accounts, Gawker recommended that users change it for those destinations and accounts as well.
Hackers have already demonstrated that trying the leaked passwords works.
Earlier today, the head of Twitter's Trust and Safety team claimed that a spam campaign launched against users of the micro-blogging service had used Gawker account passwords to access Twitter accounts secured with the same passwords.
"Got a Gawker acct that shares a [password] w/your Twitter acct?" said Del Harvey in a Twitter message. "Change your Twitter [password]. A current attack appears to be due to the Gawker compromise."
Later Monday, she said, "The Gawker hack and resultant compromised passwords and e-mails bled over to Twitter."
One security expert said it is almost certain other attacks relying on the leaked e-mail addresses and passwords will follow.
"You can bet on it," said Andrew Storms, director of security operations with nCircle Security. "[Hackers] have already shown a propensity to use the data ... and there is no doubt it will be used again."
The problem, of course, stems from people using only a few distinct passwords for all the online accounts they accumulate, a fact that security professionals have repeatedly pointed out.
"I always tell people that with online services, the complexity of the password is not as important as the uniqueness," said Storms in an instant message interview. "Meaning to use different passwords for different sites [and not to use] your work e-mail [account]."
Storms urged government network administrators to take note of the leaked information, and reach out to their users.
"They should be using this warning in the [Anonymous] chat room about potential re-use of passwords as a chance to get out of cubeland and warn users," he said.