Twitter's Hands-Off Approach to Tweeted Terrorism

Twitter's security and free speech policies don't always mix

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On Friday, hackers broke into the main Twitter account for NBC News and reported a terrorist attack on Ground Zero. Twitter acted fast, pulling the accounts of NBC and the Script Kiddies, the LulzSec-lookalikes that took credit for the attack, but the tweet stirred some anxiety in the days before the tenth anniversary of 9/11. This is hardly the first time that rogue tweets have stirred fear, and Twitter is drawing an increasing amount of scrutiny for the potential dangers of people using the service to incite violence. There are also new details about how the NBC News account was hacked in the first place (hint: don't click on mysterious files that strange emailers send you). All in all, though, the burgeoning social media company has not always been so quick to address the misinformation. Twitter is a boon for free speech around the world, but considering the security problems, it's also struggling with the consequences of free speech left unchecked.

The NBC News breach could've happened to anyone. MSNBC reports that Ryan Osborne, NBC's director of social media, received some suspicious emails in the days before the attack and, probably out of simple curiosity, opened an attachment that might have infected his computer with a Trojan horse. Once installed, this type of spyware can nab passwords by recording keyboard strokes. With a stolen password from Osborne, the Script Kiddies would have been able to take control of the account and tweet about terrorism or anything else they liked. The F.B.I. is meanwhile investigating the hack, but a government official told MSNBC, "The truth is it's relatively easy to get into these accounts."

Twitter doesn't exactly deflect the blame, and it's certainly not shouldering the responsibility for security breaches. We reached out to Twitter to ask how the company protects its users, especially news outlets with large followings, against security breaches. Twitter spokesperson Lynn Fox told The Atlantic Wire that it doesn't comment on individual user accounts and directed us to an official blog post on "Keeping your account safe." We then asked in an email if it would be safe to say that Twitter entrusts the security of individual accounts to the users who own the accounts. "I wouldn't say that," Fox replied and directed us to the last paragraph of that same blog post, that points to Twitter's account security help page and "an excellent safety and security checklist," which gives some good tips for users but says nothing about what the company does to prevent malevolent uses of accounts.

The company has been similarly dismissive about a recent flare-up of criticism over the misuse of Twitter in the London riots and violence in Mexico. Last week, news emerged about two "Twitter terrorists" who sent out false reports about attacks on a school in the Mexican city of Veracruz now face 30 years in prison. When we asked, Twitter would not comment on the specifics of that case.

"Our users' ability to express themselves is important to us and that freedom of expression is recognized internationally as a fundamental human right," Twitter said in a statement. "Our users' ability to express themselves is important to us and that freedom of expression is recognized internationally as a fundamental human right. Of course, we neither condone nor allow illegal content on Twitter and we evaluate reports on accounts that may violate our Terms of Service."

That leaves a difficult problem, particularly difficult because it's a such a new problem. Societies around the world are struggling to cope with the powerful effects of Twitter and other social media. However, it's a process of trial and error to determine exactly how Twitter ought to improve their service and at which point governments should intervene with regulation. In the United States, the First Amendment is guiding dogma, but in countries like Britain, governments have threatened to censor social media in times of crisis.

Does Twitter have a security problem? Probably, but it's not as bad as it used to be. Are governments overreacting to the perceived threat of social media and the unbridled free speech they enable? It would certainly seem so. Is there anything you can do about either of those problems? Yes: Be careful. Be careful what you tweet; be careful with your password; and above all, be careful what you believe when you read it on Twitter.

"Once people were yelling 'fire' in a crowded theater," Ryan Calo, a researcher at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, told CNN regarding the case in Mexico. "Now the whole world is like the crowded theater."

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