Twitter promises “full security review” after celebrity account hacks

Twitter Inc. has launched a comprehensive review of the defenses in its popular social network and micro-blogging service, after hackers last week hijacked the accounts of several high-profile users.

In interviews last week, analysts said they were surprised that sites such as Twitter, which are potentially hot targets for hackers and phishers, have long avoided such major attacks and thus strong scrutiny by their corporate users.

Following last week’s widely publicized hack of the site, analysts said they are closely watching how Twitter and its corporate customers respond to the security breach.

“Certainly, with all the coverage Twitter has had about this, it will bring security to [Twitter’s] attention,” said Caroline Dangson, an analyst at research firm IDC.

“It reminds us that we’re dealing with a medium that is less secure and we need to be more conscious of what we’re putting out there and not take it for granted like we have,” she added.

San Francisco-based Twitter confirmed last Monday that hackers had broken into the accounts of more than 30 celebrities and organizations, including President-elect Barack Obama, Britney Spears, and the Fox News and CNN cable TV networks.

Torontonians seem to love Twitter. Toronto ranks eight on a list of Top 30 Twitter locations, based on a survey of information provided by Twitter users, according to a survey by Hubspot Inc.’s quarterly State of the Twittersphere report.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 new Twitter accounts are created every day, the report said. The three cities most sold on Twitter are London, U.K. followed by San Francisco, New York and Chicago.

Much of Twitter’s popularity has to do with its casual nature, say social networking experts –people use the site as a forum to chat about everyday life topics, such as TV shows, recipes and the weather.

But this also makes it an easy hacking and phishing target.

Facebook is yet another site that’s been subjected to a volley of hacking attacks – as people post a great deal personal information on that site, and it’s also used as a platform to send out business-related messages.

Phishing and hacking attacks on these sites as well as on other social networks such as MySpace have increased dramatically over the past year.

Meanwhile a Twitter spokesperson said the person who recently compromised the celebrity accounts, “hacked into some of the tools the [Twitter] support team uses to help people do things like edit the e-mail address associated with their account when they can’t remember or get stuck.”

“We considered this a very serious breach of security and immediately took the support tools offline.”

The sensational nature of the messages posted on the compromised accounts generated a lot of comment in blogs and other forums.

For instance, hackers had used the Fox News account to post the message “Breaking: Bill O Riley is gay,” while U.S. president-elect Obama’s account linked to a phony Web site offering a $500 gas card in return for completing a survey.

The company said tools used by its support team were illegally accessed and used to send malicious messages, many of them offensive, from the compromised accounts.

The network was breached just two days after identity thieves launched a phishing campaign that tried to dupe users of the micro-blogging service into divulging their usernames and passwords.

In a blog post on the company’s Web site, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone said he considers last week’s compromise to be “a very serious breach of security.”

In an e-mail Stone said, “We’re doing a full security review on all access points to Twitter.” The first steps will be to “strengthen the security surrounding sign-in” and to further restrict access to the company’s own support tools, he said.

Ken van Wyk, principal consultant at KRvW Associates LLC in Alexandria, Va., said that although individual users are unlikely to change microblogging habits because of the breach, IT managers should move quickly to evaluate how such incidents could affect their firms.

“We’re seeing [Twitter] used more and more for communications between managers and employees,” he said. “I suspect that a few of those folks might have a knee-jerk reaction to something like this and stop using it.”

Van Wyk noted that the breach could inspire some IT organizations to develop applications that provide Twitter-like capabilities for in-house use.

Dangson recommended that companies evaluate potential alternatives to Twitter or more-secure complementary tools to use with the service.

“We’re not going to see a lot of people stop using [Twitter] because of this, but they might consider other forms of communication — more closed networks for certain information they’re trying to share,” she said. “I think people will be more cautious, but they won’t stop using Twitter.”

Stone said that he expects corporate users will see Twitter’s “reaction and immediate behavior” following the breach as “a signal that we’re serious about security and supporting commercial use.”

As for home users, van Wyk said, “I don’t think people will say, ‘Hey, now this place is corrupt.’ I suspect [Twitter] will come away unscathed.”

However, he added, “I think it would be good for companies to suffer a little bit when there’s a major security breach. If they come through unscathed, where is the lesson? Where’s the push to improve security?”

Gregg Keizer contributed to this article

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