HOUSTON – Turns out even former presidents can fall prey to hackers.
A mysterious email hacker apparently accessed private photos and messages sent between members of the Bush family, including both retired commanders in chief.
The Secret Service is investigating the breach, which appeared to yield little more than a few snapshots and some family discussions. But the incident illustrated how easily hackers can pry into private lives, even those of one of the nations most prominent and closely guarded political clans.
The Smoking Gun website displayed photos it said came from the hacker, including one that purported to show the elder Bush during his recent stay in a Houston hospital, where the 88-year-old spent almost two months undergoing treatment for complications from a bronchial infection.
The website said the hacker, who went by the online moniker Guccifer, gained access to the material through Bush family members and friends.
That could have made George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush vulnerable, even if they have the finest security that technology can provide. A friend or relative who clicked on a deceptive link or unwittingly downloaded a suspicious program might accidentally have exposed correspondence involving the former presidents.
We cant control what our friends do, said Dan Wallach, manager of Rice Universitys computer security lab and a computer science professor at the Houston school.
If my friends post a photo of me on Facebook, I can untag myself, but I cant delete it. Its not my photo. And thats just a general-purpose problem.
Reached by email, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the hacking outrageous. The rest of the family stayed quiet.
Theres a criminal investigation and, as such, theres nothing else we can say, said Jim McGrath, a spokesman for George H.W. Bush in Houston.
Free email accounts from commercial providers are especially vulnerable to hackers who exploit easy-to-use features to reset email passwords. Many passwords can be reset by a hacker who discovers, for example, the birth year of a persons mother, a fathers middle name or the name of a favorite pet.
Thats what happened to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008.
Thats the first thing I thought of, said Tyler Moore, an assistant professor of computer science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The key here is when youre famous or a well-known person or celebrity, theres not a lot you can do if youre targeted.
A Tennessee college student named David Kernell was convicted two years later on federal charges.
Last year, a group of hackers known as the D33D Company published a list of what it said were usernames and passwords for more than 450,000 email accounts, including more than 25,000 AOL accounts. It was not immediately clear whether the Bush familys hacked AOL accounts were among those.
Interestingly, the hacker also revealed that George W. Bush enjoys painting. One photo showed Bush standing at an easel, dabbing at a canvas. Two other images were of paintings that seem to be self-portraits in which the former president is shaving in the shower and soaking in a bathtub. Neither shows any nudity.