How Can a President's Email Get Hacked?

The morning after Bush family emails burst online, revealing self portraits by George W. Bush and about his father's health, the Secret Service opened an investigation into the apparent infiltration of the private, post-presidency accounts for Bushes 41 and 43, raising questions about personal-tech security all the way up to Obama.

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The morning after a hacker's ultimate crack of Bush family email accounts burst wide open online, revealing self portraits by George W. Bush (nude and otherwise, pictured at right and below) as well as details about his father's health, the Secret Service said it was opening an investigation into the apparent infiltration of the private, post-presidency emails for Bushes 41 and 43. While an agency spokesperson would only confirm the beginnings of a second look, the expanding security breakdown raises questions about potentially lax personal-tech protection that may have followed the Bushes in and out of office, even as President Obama's super-secret BlackBerry and iPad get stronger.

Put more simply: How the heck do you hack an ex-president's email these days? And what does the stodgy old AOL account of W.'s sister have to do with this?

Even though the Secret Service is looking into the accounts of George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, it remains unclear from The Smoking Gun's report whether the hack, which contains emails from 2009 to 2012 that also detail how close Jeb Bush considered himself with President Clinton, got its information from the presidents or their friends and family. A hacker known as Guccifer got into "at least six separate e-mail accounts," but the report only lists five: the AOL email address of H.W.'s daughter and W.'s sister Dorothy; an old friend named Willard Hemingway; CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz; Barbara Bush's brother; and Bush 41's sister-in-law. It remains unclear to whom the sixth account belonged, but if it was the post-presidency email of either Bush, that would represent a major flaw in the technology operation of the Secret Service, which provides protection for former presidents for life. And, yes, old presidents out of the public view — and even in the hospital — still have sensitive material on their email accounts.

Of course, this particular hack was of the more embarrassing and quite literally exposing family nature. In addition to showing the world George W. Bush's amateur painting hobby has paid off, Guccifer, the hacker, discovered that he may have been preparing a eulogy for his father, even as conflicting reports about his health emerged in public. According to the emails, in late December Bush 41's chief of staff Jean Becker wrote: "Your dad’s funeral team is having an emergency meeting at 10 a.m. just to go through all the details," adding that this information "fell under the broadening category of things NOT TO TELL YOUR MOTHER." There's also this little tidbit from Fox News's Brit Hume following the reelection of Barack Obama: "Election outcome disappointing, but there are many silver linings."

For Obama, his BlackBerry obsession has been well detailed — he's still using one, despite rumors about an iPhone — but he has often joked that the Secret Service is too vigilant about it. One need only remember that ridiculous episode of Homeland this season to think about the worst: Personal devices become threats when they're in the hands of the most powerful person in the world. And Obama's iPad isn't all cuddling with the First Lady — the NSA's John Levine raised questions as recently as last September about the new realities of the president reviewing classified information on an Apple product:

“The president is getting his daily intelligence briefing on an iPad. Ten years ago we wouldn’t have done that, but that’s what the president wants, so that’s what he gets. Now, that iPad is neutered-it has no connectivity. It gets plugged into a docking station. We can do that for the president, but can we can’t scale that. So the question is, can we use commercial products that are secure?”

While the Secret Service may very well be extending the same kinds of protections to former presidents, it would do well to beef up all around. Either that, or AOL accounts security just wasn't good enough to protect a Bush sister's photo album this time around. AOL used to offer 2-factor verification with a key-fob for those who wanted extra protection, but got rid of it in 2009 to make logging in easier. That simple, everyday kind of security failure, combined with a generation of politicians prone to hanging on to their old-school AOL accounts, could be at fault here, as New York's Joe Coscarelli surmises:

Cracking a second-tier e-mail account, like Dorothy Bush Koch's, with barely any effort, could have exposed Guccifer to all kinds of private info, including the personal e-mail addresses of other friends and family on which to try the same tricks. All the hacker has to do once they're inside is sit around and watch to collect more clues and loopholes.

Either way, America ended up with this today:

(Photos via Guccifer via The Smoking Gun)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.