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Social Media – Dangerously Anonymous & Plausibly Deniable March 19, 2012

Posted by Chris Mark in Industry News, InfoSec & Privacy, Risk & Risk Management, terrorism.
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Today on Foxnews was a story about a person who claimed to be an occupy Wall Street protester who tweated a threat to kill a police officer.  A user with the name “Smackema1” tweeted: “We won’t make a difference if we don’t kill a cop or 2,”  What is interesting about this is that the person had never attended any Occupy protests and was actually in Florida when he sent the tweet.  The author, who police are trying to identify, clarified his remarks to a Florida newspaper when he said: “It’s not like I meant anything of it. Who takes anything like that seriously? I’m in Florida, what am I going to do?”  When hidden behind the mask of anonymity it certainly appears this person was trying to incite violence for his own reasons, and when the situation began to turn against this person’s interests, he claimed that it was all in jest. Clearly, this person was trying to incite violence even if he, personally, was not going to take part.   This is the challenge with social media today.  Social media like Twitter, Facebook, and a number of other services allows people to anonymously connect with others in much the same way that people can connect in person. It can be used to foment violence anonymously, and to plausibly deny that the author was behind the act.

In Anonymous’ manifesto they stated: “May we remind you that Anonymous is a dynamic entity. Furthermore, anything attributed, credited, or tagged to Anonymous is not always based on the consensus of us as a whole.”  This particular statement is chilling.  Basically, someone can take action and claim represent Anonymous.  If the action works to their favor, the group can take credit. If the action is not in their favor they simply disavow the action of the individual and claim it was not based upon consensus.

Recently, Hector Xavier Monsegur,  a leader of the hacktivist group LulzSec was arrested.  The person’ online name was Sabu and he was responsible for a number of hacks of prominent companies.  According to those who knew him it was his “…anti-government, anti-capitalist ideologies” that caused Monsegur to gravitate toward hacking.  It is likely that those who followed this idealist’s lead knew that while he professed ‘anti-goverment’ and ‘anti-capitalists’ views, he was actually an unemployed 28 year old father of two living in a housing project and receiving  welfare.

The use of social media to foment revolution and other actions is becoming well known.  Those who followed the Arab Spring revolutions can attest to the power of social media in rallying and coordinating efforts.  This point has not been lost on the political powers.  Just this past week, it was disclosed that many people who were protesting Vladimir Putin’s presidential run were targeted by Malicious software sent in an email which proposed to inform the recipient of protest locations.  The software effectively wiped the drives of the protesters.

Social media is important and it is powerful.  The real time posting ability and anonymity it provides the author and reader allows for misuse.  As we have seen in the two examples above, there is little to prevent a person or group from ‘joining’ a cause in which they have no real interest other than to foment violence or revolution.  Imagine, a terrorist organization that begins to work with a hacking group and convinces some members to embark on an attack for what they believe is a valid (in their mind) form of protest.  In reality, they are acting on behalf of a group with no interest in the actual goals of the organization.  One has to wonder what this person in Florida’s objectives are, if they are not to incite violence?  He or she has no dog in the fight in the Occupy effort in New York so what made them post something as inflammatory as suggesting that a police officer or two should be killed?

As social media continues to become a more important part of peoples lives it is inevitable that it will be misused by terrorists, misfits, governments and others.

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