Hacking of Facebook pages possible, but not probable, experts say

by Kayla Canne, Sun Chronicle Staff, March 4, 2017

James Lang, a selectman candidate before he was eliminated in February’s preliminary election, was caught with Facebook posts disparaging Muslims. He apologized, told The Sun Chronicle he would quit the race, and shut down his Facebook page.

Two days later, Selectman Paul Belham was found with anti-Muslim posts on his Facebook page, along with posts mocking the accent of Mexicans. Belham dismissed the posts as the work of social media “hackers” who find their way into his account every few months, despite attempts to clean up his page and change his passwords.

Then within days, Lang was back, claiming he, too, was the apparent victim of hackers, and was staying in the selectman’s race, where he finished in last place.

The two situations within a week of each other begs the question: How could two small town officials end up targets of social media hackers posting similar content?

Is it remotely possible?

Cybersecurity experts couldn’t be sure, but they did lend some insight into how social media pages could be hacked.

“Hacking means basically getting unauthorized access to a social media account to do whatever you want with it,” said Azer Bestavros, a computer science professor and cybersecurity developer at Boston University.

And the hackers themselves? They could be anyone — from an estranged ex-wife with an ax to grind to a passerby who stumbles upon a Facebook profile left open on a public computer. Then, there are more sophisticated hackers.

“Say, someone wants to get into the Department of Defense,” Bestavros said. “Their computer comes with a lot of protections, naturally, so instead they might make their way into it by hacking into employees’ accounts.

“They start by hacking normal people with the hope they would get to the real target.”

Also, users who frequently visit risky sites open themselves to viruses that can latch onto their keystrokes or find passwords hidden in their computers, Bestavros said.

And, some offer hacking as a service. Yes, you can buy access to social media accounts.

“It’s difficult with cybersecurity because there’s so many reasons or ways this happens,” Bestavros said. “But, if you have somebody who is determined to hack your account, they probably will.”

And that’s simply due to the nature of social media sites, said Jonathan Gossels, president of a Sudbury network security consulting firm, SystemExperts.

“Social media sites are designed to make it easy for people to get on and disseminate information,” he said. “They’re not designed to be highly secure sites.”

Joe Clapp, a senior consultant with the firm, said hackers tend to find usernames and passwords from less secure sites and — because people tend to use the same password for several sites — use that information to hack in elsewhere.

The motivation isn’t always clear.

“If someone’s purpose is to spy on you, they’ll just spy on you,” Bestavros said. “But they could also use you to get to your friends or to see how people would react to different postings. It could be getting revenge.

“It could be as simple as bragging rights or as serious as propagating some agenda or virus, or to get people to click on a link posted by someone they could usually trust.”

Clapp described social media hacking as a “target of opportunity” — hackers use the platforms of others as a billboard for their own opinions, products or research, oftentimes unbeknownst to the victims themselves.

But if Lang and Belham were the victims of hackers, there is one way to clear their name.

“I would urge them to launch an investigation with Facebook,” Clapp said. “They can look at the technical trail and IP addresses to find where these posts came from. They can look and see, did it come from this account itself?”

Bestavros said he couldn’t comment on Lang or Belham’s postings directly, but did say the length of the posts — which stretch back as far as 2014 for both men — could be suspicious.

“It’s unusual. If you’re hacked once, you would think you’d learn your lesson and be more guarded,” he said. “It does suggest there is some persistence there. Typically, you don’t see the same person being hacked every few months.

“Could it be possible? Yes. Is it likely? That’s another question I don’t think we can answer.”