Twitter taken to task by FTC for ‘deceiving consumers’

24 Jun 2010

Twitter has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived consumers and put their privacy at risk by failing to safeguard their personal information.

The case was the 30th taken by the FTC over faulty data security and the first case the US government body has taken against a social-networking service.

The FTC’s complaint against Twitter charges that serious lapses in the company’s data security allowed hackers to obtain administrative control of Twitter, including access to tweets that consumers had designated private, and the ability to send out phony tweets while pretending to be from then-president-elect Barack Obama and Fox News, among others.

“When a company promises consumers that their personal information is secure, it must live up to that promise,” said David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“Likewise, a company that allows consumers to designate their information as private must use reasonable security to uphold such designations. Consumers who use social-networking sites may choose to share some information with others, but they still have a right to expect that their personal information will be kept private and secure.”

Twitter and privacy

Twitter allows users to send “tweets” – brief messages of 140 characters or less – to “followers” who sign up to receive such messages via e-mail or phone text. Twitter offers privacy settings through which a user may choose to designate tweets as non-public.

For instance, users can send “direct messages” to a specified follower such that only the specific author and recipient can view such a message. Twitter users can also click a button labelled “Protect my tweets,” which makes that user’s tweets private so that only approved followers can view them.

The privacy policy posted on Twitter’s website stated that “Twitter is very concerned about safeguarding the confidentiality of your personally identifiable information. We employ administrative, physical and electronic measures designed to protect your information from unauthorized access.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, between January and May 2009, hackers who gained administrative control of Twitter were able to view non-public user information, gain access to direct messages and protected tweets, and reset any user’s password and send authorised tweets from any user account.

In January 2009, a hacker used an automated password-guessing tool to gain administrative control of Twitter, after submitting thousands of guesses into Twitter’s login webpage. The administrative password was a weak, lower case, common dictionary word. Using the password, the hacker reset numerous user passwords and posted some of them on a website, where other people could access them.

Using these fraudulently reset passwords, other intruders sent phony tweets from about nine user accounts. One tweet was sent from the account of then-president-elect Barack Obama, offering his more than 150,000 followers a chance to win $500 in free gasoline. At least one other phony tweet was sent from the account of Fox News.

During a second security breach, in April 2009, a hacker compromised a Twitter employee’s personal e-mail account where two passwords similar to the employee’s Twitter administrative password were stored, in plain text. Using this information, the hacker was able to guess the employee’s Twitter administrative password. The hacker reset at least one Twitter user’s password, and could access private user information and tweets for any Twitter users.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Twitter was vulnerable to these attacks because it failed to take reasonable steps to prevent unauthorised administrative control of its system, including:

·        Requiring employees to use hard-to-guess administrative passwords that are not used for other programs, websites, or networks.

·        Prohibiting employees from storing administrative passwords in plain text within their personal e-mail accounts.

·        Suspending or disabling administrative passwords after a reasonable number of unsuccessful login attempts.

·        Providing an administrative login webpage that is made known only to authorised persons and is separate from the login page for users.

·        Enforcing periodic changes of administrative passwords by, for example, setting them to expire every 90 days.

·        Restricting access to administrative controls to employees whose jobs required it.

·        Imposing other reasonable restrictions on administrative access, such as by restricting access to specified IP addresses.

Under the terms of the settlement, Twitter will be barred for 20 years from misleading consumers about the extent to which it maintains and protects the security, privacy and confidentiality of non-public consumer information, including the measures it takes to prevent authorised access to information and honour the privacy choices made by consumers.

The company also must establish and maintain a comprehensive information security program, which will be assessed by a third party every other year for 10 years.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years