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Twitter Spy Case Highlights Risks for Big Tech Platforms

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The allegations of spying by former Twitter employees for Saudi Arabia underscore the risks for Silicon Valley firms holding sensitive data which make the platforms ripe for espionage.

The two Saudis and one US citizen allegedly worked together to unmask the ownership details behind dissident Twitter accounts on behalf of the Riyadh government and royal family, according to a federal indictment.

Analysts say the incident shows how massive databases held by Silicon Valley giants can be juicy targets for intelligence agencies, which can often apply pressure to company insiders.

“The Twitter case shows how data is not only an asset but a liability for companies,” said Adrian Shahbaz, research director for technology and democracy at the human rights group Freedom House.

“For companies collecting massive amounts of data, the challenge is how to keep it secure not only from hackers, but from rogue employees.”

Shahbaz said platforms such as Twitter and Facebook remain important tools for human rights activists, but that users should be aware of potential for data leaks — both in their countries, and from insiders.

“It’s been alarming to see how governments using tactics to exploit the inherent weaknesses of the internet… go after people expressing dissent,” he said.

“It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game between users and very well-resourced governments.”

Bruce Schneier, a security researcher and fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, said it is not surprising to see governments targeting databases of tech platforms.

“We all assume it happens a lot. But this (prosecution) rarely comes up,” Schneier said.

No match for Russia
Schneier said there have long been fears about Chinese or Russian insiders pressured to introduce vulnerabilities in major software platforms, and that companies may be ill-equipped to thwart those efforts.

“The government of Russia versus Twitter is not a fair fight,” he said. “It’s hard to blame the tech companies.”

Because major tech firms have engineers from all over the world, Schneier said it enables intelligences services to seek out and pressure their expats for espionage purposes.

The case highlights the potential for insider threats, said James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Insider threats go back to biblical times,” he said, noting that the suspects were probably caught because they “did a terrible job of covering their tracks.”

Background checks enough? 

According to an indictment unsealed Wednesday, US citizen Ahmad Abouammo and Saudi national Ali Alzabarah were recruited in 2014-2015 to use their positions in Twitter to gain access to private information related to accounts of critics of Riyadh.

Ahmed Almutairi, a marketing official with ties to the royal family, was a critical go-between who arranged contacts, prosecutors said.

Twitter said in a statement it restricts access to sensitive account information “to a limited group of trained and vetted employees.”

But John Dickson, a former US air force information warfare officer who is now with the security consultancy Denim Group, said private companies, even in Silicon Valley, are not equipped to for background checks needed to find potential spies.

“Most employers do cursory background checks for the most obvious stuff such as criminal records or bankruptcy,” he said.

“None of them does any semblance of a background check on nation-state threats.”

Dickson said it remains unclear if the tech platforms are cognizant of the sensitivity of the data they hold, and the draw of that information for intelligence services.

“They are still acting as social media companies,” he said.

“Their default is to get as many connections as possible, and the network effect enhances the platform.”

Shahbaz said the latest case illustrates a need for regulations to require tech platforms to limit how much data they collect and maintain.

“There might be a role for government to play in terms of data privacy legislation,” he said.

“There’s a case for collecting the bare minimum of data from users and allowing users to opt out” of certain kinds of data collection.

He said companies should also be required to inform victims if their data has been compromised “so they can take measures to protect themselves.”

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TWITTER

China’s Foreign Ministry adopts a Trumpian tone on its new Twitter account — with insults, typos …

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If you live in China, chances are you aren’t on Twitter — the American tech giant has been blocked by Beijing’s Great Firewall for more than a decade.

But for Chinese diplomats, that doesn’t mean Twitter can’t be a tool to spread their message in the West. And perhaps there’s no need to stay diplomatic on it either.

Late Monday evening in Beijing, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs began tweeting under the handle “MFA_China” and the bio: “Follow us to know more about China’s Diplomacy.”

Just a few days later, it has already made an impact. Although most of the tweets simply share video footage of spokeswoman Hua Chunying’s news conferences, the English text on the tweets often takes a combative, even Trumpian tone.

“Big guy NOT NECESSARILY threat. Unilateralism & hegemony IS,” the account wrote on Thursday, criticizing comments at a NATO summit in London about China.

Another tweet Thursday warned sardonically with an emoji that if the West thinks Chinese tech companies could be a threat, it should worry about clothes and shoes, too.

In earlier tweets, the ministry had written “LOL!” when talking about U.S. investment in China, called the United States a “moral loner” and shared an image of a ballet dancer’s battered foot in apparent criticism of the Canadian detention of Meng Wanzhou of Huawei.

A tweet on Wednesday had suggested that the United States should not criticize China’s harsh treatment of the Uighur minority because of “native Indians’ tears & blood.”

“China’s ethnic policy is more successful!” the tweet said.

Forget native Indians’ tears&blood? US politicians like @SpeakerPelosi so ignorant&hypocritical to talk about “conscience”. Ethnic minorities in China enjoy equal rights and freedom in religion and culture. China’s ethnic policy is more successful! pic.twitter.com/JyYD0pS8Mr

— Spokesperson发言人办公室 (@MFA_China) December 4, 2019

This is far from China’s first foray into English-language social media — Chinese-state-linked entities such as the Global Times and Xinhua have long used Western companies to spread messages that needled Western governments.

But there appears to have been a shift in how Chinese diplomats approach Twitter recently.

Notably, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese diplomat who pioneered combative English-language messages earlier this year, has been promoted to deputy director general of the ministry’s information department.

In July, as China faced international criticism for its crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in the Xinjiang region, Zhao tweeted a variety of criticism of the United States — highlighting alleged religious intolerance, gun violence, Internet surveillance, income inequality and more.

Zhao, who was at that moment deputy chief of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, took specific aim at the U.S. capital, arguing that white residents of Washington would never go to Southwest Washington because of racial segregation.

The tweet prompted an argument with Susan E. Rice, who was national security adviser in the Obama administration. Rice dubbed Zhao a “racist disgrace.” The Chinese diplomat responded with his own insult, saying that it was Rice who is a “disgrace” and that the “truth hurts.”

Zhao later said he meant Southeast Washington, deleted both tweets and shortly afterward returned to Beijing, but he was not demoted — he was promoted. He has continued to tweet frequently upon his return to China, using his 220,000 followers to promote pro-China messages and troll the United States.

Out of respect for President Trump, US & its people, on the occasion of thanksgiving day, I pay special thanks to US for squandering trillions of dollars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria… pic.twitter.com/9WMNoHdSML

— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 29, 2019

In interviews, Zhao has said that China needed to take to Twitter to combat U.S. influence on the platform.

But whereas Trump and other U.S. officials tweet in English to a largely domestic audience, China’s Foreign Ministry appears to be targeting international audiences with a sometimes crude message. Here it may be emulating not the U.S. president, but Russian diplomats who have used embassy Twitter accounts to mock and belittle Western democracies.

However, changing international attitudes via tweet may be an uphill battle for China. A Pew Research Center survey of 34 countries released on Thursday found considerable negative sentiment toward China worldwide, with unfavorable views of the country increasing sharply in the United States and Canada in 2019.

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Artists attempt to pit art-stealing Twitter bots against trigger-happy corporate lawyers

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Photo: Peter Power (Getty Images)

While the internet has obviously been a major boon for artists—what with the ability to show off their work to far wider audiences than humanity could have ever once dreamed—it’s also been a pretty massive benefit for art thieves, too. After all: Once upon a time, stealing someone’s artwork involved grappling hooks, inside men, and one of those little circle-knife things that lets you cut glass and hold it tight with a suction cup; now you just need a bot, and a decent set of Twitter keyword search terms.

Terms like “T-shirt,” say, or “that would look great on a T-shirt,” or anything else that might clue Twitter-trawling robots in to images they could slap on unauthorized articles of clothing (a T-shirt, possibly), which would then be purchased by unsuspecting shoppers.

But as our ancestors always used to say: Where there’s an algorithm, there’s a way to fuck with that algorithm for our own collective amusement. And so people on Twitter have begun encouraging these art-scraping bots to focus their interest on, well…non-traditional forms of art.

Some, as in the first of the above images, are just outright admissions of the theft-to-come. But others go even further, attempting to pick a fight between the thieves and the rabid forces of corporate copyright law. And while it seems unlikely that any of these companies in question will actually get sued out of existence by the wrathful Disney gods—alas—it is possible that they’ll be forced to tune their art-lifting algorithms to be more discriminating, and thus less widespread in their larcenous habits. (Although it also seems possible that people will buy these shirts when they do pop up on stores in order to be part of the moment, or to engage in some standard-issue internet irony, because truly, humanity is a paradoxical beast.)

In the meantime, always remember: Mickey Mouse smells like farts.

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Targeting Xinjiang?

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targeting-xinjiang?

Is Harry Potter’s Ginny Weasley tweeting you about how great life is in China’s western region of Xinjiang? She might be a bot

It looks like there’s another Twitter bot campaign in the making, but it’s not targeting US elections this time. Instead, it’s primarily focused on the region of Xinjiang in western China, where UN experts say that over a million people are being held in detention camps.

A researcher from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) says she found a “massive spambot network in the making” that’s trying to influence Twitter discussions on the issue. And strangely, they appear inclined to represent themselves as celebrities.

The accounts discovered last week have surfaced at a crucial time for China. On Tuesday, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would require the US administration to identify and sanction officials responsible for the mass internment of Uygurs and other members of ethnic minorities in the country’s Xinjiang autonomous region.

Beijing opposes the bill and says the camps exist to prevent terrorism and separatism.

Twitter is no stranger to pro-Beijing campaigns on its platform. In August, Twitter suspended 936 accounts originating from China for what it said was a “coordinated state-backed operation” to sow political discord in Hong Kong. The social network shared a list of the accounts, saying it represents the most active portion of a larger “spammy network” of 200,000 accounts sharing content against the anti-government protests in Hong Kong. The other accounts were suspended before they were substantially active, Twitter said.

But unlike the Hong Kong campaign, the newly discovered accounts were created this year rather than having been repurposed. Earlier research from the ASPI on anti-protest bots showed that many of the accounts have been around for years, sometimes tweeting about things completely unrelated to China, like bacon, K-pop and hot tubs.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the new accounts is that they seem to have a thing for Western celebrities. Many of the more than 375 accounts use profile pictures of actresses like Kiera Knightley and Bonnie Wright, known for starring as Ginny Weasley in Harry Potter.

It’s part of the reason why the accounts weren’t hard to spot. They were identified based on a combination of their attributes and their behavior, ASPI researcher Elise Thomas told Abacus. In addition to pictures of celebrities, things like consistent naming patterns, tweeting random quotes or saying hello to themselves are all signs that the person retweeting you might not be real.

Compulsively sharing quotes from Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be another sign of a potential bot. (Picture: Screenshot from Twitter)

Another dead giveaway? These new accounts seem obsessed with retweeting the Chinese state-owned tabloid Global Times, which has been using Twitter to staunchly deny abuses in Xinjiang.

The media outlet rose to prominence in China for its nationalist views and sharp attacks on critics of the Chinese government. Recent articles have accused scholars researching Xinjiang of working for US intelligence agencies and called reporters liars. The website has also been sharing glowing reports of life in the autonomous region under the Communist Party.

Global Times also sought to amplify its message through legitimate means by paying for ads. In June and August, Twitter had more than 50 promoted tweets from the media outlet, an investigation from The Intercept showed. As part of its wide sweep of pro-Beijing bots in August, Twitter said that it would no longer accept advertising from state-controlled media.

We reached out to the Global Times but didn’t receive a response.

So far, the origin of the accounts discovered by ASPI is unknown, and there’s no evidence that the campaign was state-sponsored. It also appears that their activity has been limited and they haven’t picked up a large number of followers.

In addition to the Global Times, the accounts have been sharing posts from other Chinese state media outlets, as well as statements from Chinese government bodies and diplomats. The Hong Kong protests were another favorite topic for the accounts.

Some of the accounts highlighted by ASPI’s Thomas seem to have already been removed. In response to our inquiry, Twitter said it takes action against millions of accounts each week for violating policies in this area.

“Improving the collective health of public conversation is a top priority for our company,” the company said in a statement. “Platform manipulation, including spam and other attempts to undermine the public conversation, is a clear violation of the Twitter Rules.”

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