Entries Tagged "Twitter"

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Identifying People using Anonymous Social Networking Data

Interesting:

Computer scientists Arvind Narayanan and Dr Vitaly Shmatikov, from the University of Texas at Austin, developed the algorithm which turned the anonymous data back into names and addresses.

The data sets are usually stripped of personally identifiable information, such as names, before it is sold to marketing companies or researchers keen to plumb it for useful information.

Before now, it was thought sufficient to remove this data to make sure that the true identities of subjects could not be reconstructed.

The algorithm developed by the pair looks at relationships between all the members of a social network—not just the immediate friends that members of these sites connect to.

Social graphs from Twitter, Flickr and Live Journal were used in the research.

The pair found that one third of those who are on both Flickr and Twitter can be identified from the completely anonymous Twitter graph. This is despite the fact that the overlap of members between the two services is thought to be about 15%.

The researchers suggest that as social network sites become more heavily used, then people will find it increasingly difficult to maintain a veil of anonymity.

More details:

In “De-anonymizing social networks,” Narayanan and Shmatikov take an anonymous graph of the social relationships established through Twitter and find that they can actually identify many Twitter accounts based on an entirely different data source—in this case, Flickr.

One-third of users with accounts on both services could be identified on Twitter based on their Flickr connections, even when the Twitter social graph being used was completely anonymous. The point, say the authors, is that “anonymity is not sufficient for privacy when dealing with social networks,” since their scheme relies only on a social network’s topology to make the identification.

The issue is of more than academic interest, as social networks now routinely release such anonymous social graphs to advertisers and third-party apps, and government and academic researchers ask for such data to conduct research. But the data isn’t nearly as “anonymous” as those releasing it appear to think it is, and it can easily be cross-referenced to other data sets to expose user identities.

It’s not just about Twitter, either. Twitter was a proof of concept, but the idea extends to any sort of social network: phone call records, healthcare records, academic sociological datasets, etc.

Here’s the paper.

Posted on April 6, 2009 at 6:51 AMView Comments

Helping the Terrorists

It regularly comes as a surprise to people that our own infrastructure can be used against us. And in the wake of terrorist attacks or plots, there are fear-induced calls to ban, disrupt or control that infrastructure. According to officials investigating the Mumbai attacks, the terrorists used images from Google Earth to help learn their way around. This isn’t the first time Google Earth has been charged with helping terrorists: in 2007, Google Earth images of British military bases were found in the homes of Iraqi insurgents. Incidents such as these have led many governments to demand that Google remove or blur images of sensitive locations: military bases, nuclear reactors, government buildings, and so on. An Indian court has been asked to ban Google Earth entirely.

This isn’t the only way our information technology helps terrorists. Last year, a US army intelligence report worried that terrorists could plan their attacks using Twitter, and there are unconfirmed reports that the Mumbai terrorists read the Twitter feeds about their attacks to get real-time information they could use. British intelligence is worried that terrorists might use voice over IP services such as Skype to communicate. Terrorists may train on Second Life and World of Warcraft. We already know they use websites to spread their message and possibly even to recruit.

Of course, all of this is exacerbated by open-wireless access, which has been repeatedly labelled a terrorist tool and which has been the object of attempted bans.

Mobile phone networks help terrorists, too. The Mumbai terrorists used them to communicate with each other. This has led some cities, including New York and London, to propose turning off mobile phone coverage in the event of a terrorist attack.

Let’s all stop and take a deep breath. By its very nature, communications infrastructure is general. It can be used to plan both legal and illegal activities, and it’s generally impossible to tell which is which. When I send and receive email, it looks exactly the same as a terrorist doing the same thing. To the mobile phone network, a call from one terrorist to another looks exactly the same as a mobile phone call from one victim to another. Any attempt to ban or limit infrastructure affects everybody. If India bans Google Earth, a future terrorist won’t be able to use it to plan; nor will anybody else. Open Wi-Fi networks are useful for many reasons, the large majority of them positive, and closing them down affects all those reasons. Terrorist attacks are very rare, and it is almost always a bad trade-off to deny society the benefits of a communications technology just because the bad guys might use it too.

Communications infrastructure is especially valuable during a terrorist attack. Twitter was the best way for people to get real-time information about the attacks in Mumbai. If the Indian government shut Twitter down – or London blocked mobile phone coverage – during a terrorist attack, the lack of communications for everyone, not just the terrorists, would increase the level of terror and could even increase the body count. Information lessens fear and makes people safer.

None of this is new. Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water, and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are – by and large – small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular. And while terrorism turns society’s very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response – just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.

This essay originally appeared in The Guardian.

EDITED TO ADD (1/29): Other ways we help the terrorists: we put computers in our libraries, we allow anonymous chat rooms, we permit commercial databases and we engage in biomedical research. Grocery stores, too, sell food to just anyone who walks in.

EDITED TO ADD (2/3): Washington DC wants to jam cell phones too.

EDITED TO ADD (2/9): Another thing that will help the terrorists: in-flight Internet.

Posted on January 29, 2009 at 6:00 AMView Comments

Shaping the Obama Administration's Counterterrorism Strategy

I’m at a two-day conference: Shaping the Obama Adminstration’s Counterterrorism Strategy, sponsored by the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. It’s sold out, but you can watch or listen to the event live on the Internet. I’ll be on a panel tomorrow at 9:00 AM.

I’ve been told that there’s a lively conversation about the conference on Twitter, but—as I have previously said—I don’t Twitter.

Posted on January 12, 2009 at 12:44 PMView Comments

Communications During Terrorist Attacks are Not Bad

Twitter was a vital source of information in Mumbai:

News on the Bombay attacks is breaking fast on Twitter with hundreds of people using the site to update others with first-hand accounts of the carnage.

The website has a stream of comments on the attacks which is being updated by the second, often by eye-witnesses and people in the city. Although the chatter cannot be verified immediately and often reflects the chaos on the streets, it is becoming the fastest source of information for those seeking unfiltered news from the scene.

But we simply have to be smarter than this:

In the past hour, people using Twitter reported that bombings and attacks were continuing, but none of these could be confirmed. Others gave details on different locations in which hostages were being held.

And this morning, Twitter users said that Indian authorities was asking users to stop updating the site for security reasons.

One person wrote: “Police reckon tweeters giving away strategic info to terrorists via Twitter”.

Another link:

I can’t stress enough: people can and will use these devices and apps in a terrorist attack, so it is imperative that officials start telling us what kind of information would be relevant from Twitter, Flickr, etc. (and, BTW, what shouldn’t be spread: one Twitter user in Mumbai tweeted me that people were sending the exact location of people still in the hotels, and could tip off the terrorists) and that they begin to monitor these networks in disasters, terrorist attacks, etc.

This fear is exactly backwards. During a terrorist attack—during any crisis situation, actually—the one thing people can do is exchange information. It helps people, calms people, and actually reduces the thing the terrorists are trying to achieve: terror. Yes, there are specific movie-plot scenarios where certain public pronouncements might help the terrorists, but those are rare. I would much rather err on the side of more information, more openness, and more communication.

Posted on December 1, 2008 at 12:02 PMView Comments

Movie-Plot Threat: Terrorists Using Twitter

No, really. (Commentary here.)

This is just ridiculous. Of course the bad guys will use all the communications tools available to the rest of us. They have to communicate, after all. They’ll also use cars, water faucets, and all-you-can-eat buffet lunches. So what?

This commentary is dead on:

Steven Aftergood, a veteran intelligence analyst at the Federation of the American Scientists, doesn’t dismiss the Army presentation out of hand. But nor does he think it’s tackling a terribly seriously threat. “Red-teaming exercises to anticipate adversary operations are fundamental. But they need to be informed by a sense of what’s realistic and important and what’s not,” he tells Danger Room. “If we have time to worry about ‘Twitter threats’ then we’re in good shape. I mean, it’s important to keep some sense of proportion.”

Posted on October 30, 2008 at 7:51 AMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.