Twitter Settles Charges that it Failed to Protect Consumers' Personal Information

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, marking the 30th case the FTC has brought targeting faulty data security, and the agency’s first such case against a social networking service.

The FTC’s complaint against Twitter charges that serious lapses in the company’s data security allowed hackers to obtain administrative control of Twitter, including access to tweets that consumers had designated private, and the ability to send out phony tweets pretending to be from then-President-elect Barack Obama and Fox News, among others.

“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. Consumers who use social networking sites may choose to share some information with others, but they still have a right to expect that their personal information will be kept private and secure.”

Twitter allows users to send “tweets” – brief messages of 140 characters or less – to “followers” who sign up to receive such messages via e-mail or phone text. Twitter offers privacy settings through which a user may choose to designate tweets as nonpublic. For instance, users can send “direct messages” to a specified follower such that only the specific author and recipient can view such a message. Twitter users can also click a button labeled “Protect my tweets,” which makes that user’s tweets private so that only approved followers can view them.

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.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, between January and May 2009, hackers who gained administrative control of Twitter were able to view nonpublic user information, gain access to direct messages and protected tweets, and reset any user’s password and send authorized tweets from any user account.

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 webpage. The administrative password was a weak, lower case, common dictionary word. Using the password, the hacker reset numerous user 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 other phony tweet was sent from the account of Fox News.

During a second security breach, in April 2009, a hacker compromised a Twitter employee’s personal e-mail account where two passwords similar to the employee’s Twitter administrative password were stored, in plain text. Using this information, the hacker was able to guess the employee’s Twitter administrative password. The hacker reset at least one Twitter user’s password, and could access private user information and tweets for any Twitter users.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Twitter was vulnerable to these attacks because it failed to take reasonable steps to prevent unauthorized administrative control of its system, including:

* requiring employees to use hard-to-guess administrative passwords that are not used for other programs, websites, or networks;
* prohibiting employees from storing administrative passwords in plain text within their personal e-mail accounts;
* suspending or disabling administrative passwords after a reasonable number of unsuccessful login attempts;
* providing an administrative login webpage that is made known only to authorized persons and is separate from the login page for users;
* enforcing periodic changes of administrative passwords by, for example, setting them to expire every 90 days;
* restricting access to administrative controls to employees whose jobs required it; and
* imposing other reasonable restrictions on administrative access, such as by restricting access to specified IP addresses.

Under the terms of the settlement, Twitter will be barred for 20 years from misleading consumers about the extent to which it maintains and protects the security, privacy, and confidentiality of nonpublic consumer information, including the measures it takes to prevent authorized access to 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 a third party every other year for 10 years.

The Commission vote to accept the proposed consent agreement was 5-0. The FTC will publish an announcement regarding the agreement in the Federal Register shortly. The agreement will be subject to public comment for 30 days, beginning today and continuing through July 26, 2010, after which the Commission will decide whether to make it final. Comments should be addressed to the FTC, Office of the Secretary, Room H-135, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC is requesting that any comment filed in paper form near the end of the public comment period be sent by courier or overnight service, if possible, because U.S. postal mail in the Washington area and at the Commission is subject to delay due to heightened security precautions. To submit a comment electronically, please click on: http://public.commentworks.com/ftc/twitter.

NOTE: The Commission issues an administrative complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the respondent has actually violated the law.

Consent agreements are for settlement purposes only and do not constitute an admission by the defendant of a law violation. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of up to $16,000.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,800 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC s Web site provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.

MEDIA CONTACT:
Claudia Bourne Farrell
Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2181
STAFF CONTACT:
Laura Berger
Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-2471

(FTC File No. 0923093)
(Twitter NR.wpd)

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