Twitter settles FTC privacy complaint

The agency investigation focuses on two attacks in 2009 in which user accounts were compromised

Social-networking giant Twitter has agreed to settle a complaint from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission alleging that the company deceived users and put their privacy at risk by failing to take appropriate security safeguards.

Twitter used lax security measures to protect user personal information, resulting in hackers gaining administrative control of the service, the FTC said in a complaint made public Thursday. Hackers were able, on two occasions in early 2009, to gain access to Twitter messages, called tweets, that users had designated as private, and they were able to send out phony tweets pretending to be from U.S. President Barack Obama, Fox News and other organizations, the FTC said.

Despite a privacy policy saying that Twitter took several measures to protect user privacy, the social-networking site failed to create or enforce several common security policies, the FTC said in its complaint. Twitter did not create or enforce a policy against easy-to-guess administrative passwords, and did not create or enforce policies prohibiting the storage of administrative passwords in plain text in personal e-mail accounts.

Twitter also failed to suspend or disable administrative passwords after a reasonable number of unsuccessful log-in attempts, failed to implement a password expiration policy and failed to restrict administrative controls to only employees that needed access, the FTC said.

"Twitter is very concerned about safeguarding the confidentiality of your personally identifiable information," said the company's privacy policy. "We employ administrative, physical, and electronic measures designed to protect your information from unauthorized access."

Twitter general counsel Alexander Macgillivray, in a blog post, said the company has already implemented many of the security changes recommended by the FTC. The two incidents that the FTC focused on happened when Twitter employed fewer than 50 people, and a total of 55 users accounts were accessed, he said.

"Put simply, we were the victim of an attack and user accounts were improperly accessed," he wrote. "Within hours of the January breach, we closed the security hole and notified affected account holders. We posted a blog post about it on the same day. In the April incident, within less than 18 minutes of the hack we removed administrative access to the hacker and we quickly notified affected users. We also posted this blog item about the incident within a few days of first learning about it."

The FTC's complaint described the two attacks. 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 log-in page, the FTC said. The administrative password was a common dictionary word, the agency said in a press release.

Using the administrative password, the hacker reset numerous user passwords and posted some of them on a Web site, the FTC said. Using these reset passwords, other intruders sent phony tweets from approximately nine user accounts. One tweet was sent from the account of then-President-elect Obama, offering his more than 150,000 followers a chance to win US$500 in free gasoline.

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, the FTC said. The hacker was then 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.

"When a company promises consumers that their personal information is secure, it must live up to that promise," David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "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."

Under the settlement, Twitter is 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. The company also must establish a comprehensive security program, which will be examined by an outside auditor every other year for 10 years.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantusG. Grant's e-mail address is

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Tags Alexander MacgillivrayU.S. Federal Trade Commissionregulationdata breachCivil lawsuitslegaltwitterDavid VladeckgovernmentBarack Obamaprivacysecurity

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