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FTC Slaps Twitter Down Hard For Lax Security, Privacy Violations

Social networking site's claims will be scrutinized for 20 years; security program will be audited for 10 years

Social networking service 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 FTC said yesterday.

The FTC's complaint against Twitter charges that serious lapses in the company's data security allowed hackers to obtain unauthorized administrative control of Twitter, including access to nonpublic user information, tweets that consumers had designated private, and the ability to send out phony tweets from any account -- including those belonging to then-President-elect Barack Obama and Fox News.

"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."

Twitter offers privacy settings through which a user can choose to designate tweets as nonpublic, the FTC notes. For instance, users can send "direct messages" to a specified follower so that only the specific author and recipient can view the message. Twitter users can also click a button labeled "Protect my tweets," which means only approved followers can view them.

According to the FTC, 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."

The FTC's complaint alleges that between January and May 2009, hackers were able to gain administrative control of Twitter on two occasions. 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 website. The administrative password was a weak, lowercase, common dictionary word, the complaint says.

Using the password, the hacker reset several 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 approximately 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 phony tweet was sent from the account of Fox News.

During a second security breach in April 2009, a hacker was able to guess the administrative password of a Twitter employee after compromising the employee's personal email account, where two similar passwords were stored in plain text. The hacker reset at least one Twitter user's password, and could access nonpublic user information and tweets for any Twitter users.

According to the FTC's complaint, Twitter was vulnerable to these attacks because it failed to prevent unauthorized administrative control of its system, including reasonable steps in password management among administrators and employees.

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

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

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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