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Nothing new under the sun

The first thing that comes to my mind when reading all the “Twitter Terrorists” news headlines this week is that one of the investors in one of the 250 Twitter clones is friends with someone in the US Army’s 304th Military Intelligence Battalion, or at the Federation of American Scientists. Or maybe it was just a part of an “all publicity is good publicity” campaign. I guess it all depends on your level of cynicism.

The now highly publicized For Official Use Only Red Teaming perspective report on “Potential for Terrorist Use of Twitter” opens with with an overview on page 1 that states: “this paper briefly covers a few examples of terrorist use and potential use of mobile to web and web to mobile technologies and tactics…”, as well as a series of five additional caveats, but clearly these were either not RTFAd, or <gasp> perhaps intentionally ignored by newshounds.

So for reasons other than “it’s really popular today, so chances are our superiors will have heard of it, thus increasing our chances of relevancy” why pick on Twitter? There are plenty of other specific examples of technology named in the report, from voice changing software, to Google Earth, to Vonage, to Skype. But since voice transformers have been around for a while, and VoIP is almost equally old-news, and Skype already got the terrorist treatment, we needed our next fix of histrionics so it was only reasonable to shift our short attention spans to Twitter.

Irresistible early 2009 prediction: Expect headlines reading “Terrorists can use Ponoko to manufacture coffee-tables of mass destruction!”

This isn’t about Twitter, or about SMS linked micro-blogs, or about social networks. It’s about the following general characteristics of posting on the Internet:

Yes, flowcharts should contain essays

So reading the MI report and considering the flowchart above, there are a few general point:

  1. Technology makes instant communications simple
  2. Communications can be private, and sometimes private communications communicate bad things
  3. Communications can be public, and sometimes public communications can reveal too much information

Is this really anything new?

  • Instant or relatively instant communications have been around for a while.
  • Cryptography is old, encryption and terrorism concerns actually existed before 9/11, and while there’s no firm date reference for “evil” it’s been around for at least 5769 years.
  • Information insecurity existed before the web, IM, SMS, microblogging, and social networks.


  • Continue Red Team exercises, they’re good. But as a member of the media, don’t use them to irresponsibly sell copy or frighten people.
  • If you are expecting a visit from your Mom, but have to run to the market for eggs, don’t leave a note on the front door to your house that reads: “Mom — I have to run to the store for eggs. Be back in 45 minutes. The back door is open, let yourself in.” Obviously, not smart. For reference, it’s effectively how Sarah Palin’s private email account was recently compromised.
  • Data is becoming less private and more persistent, so unless you want it to eventually be retrieved by someone else, do not reveal private information.
  • Whenever possible, try to devalue of data, e.g. Use full-disk encryption and database encryption so that when a loss or breach occurs the data becomes inaccessible (or at least very expensive) to the thief; use unique passwords (with a password manager) so that if one is compromised others aren’t; use “one-time” data instances such as one-time passwords or one-time credit card numbers.
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Time: 2009-05-01, 00:18

[…] be argued cogently, a bigger concern is the potential for this new medium to be used not just as a channel for terrorism, but also as its actual weapon. For example, it’s not difficult to imagine […]

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