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 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 unauthorized administrative control of Twitter, including access to non-public user information, tweets that consumers had designated private, and the ability to send out phony tweets from any account including those belonging to 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.”
According to the FTC complaint, Twitter allows users to send “tweets” – brief messages of 140 characters or fewer – 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 so that only the specific author and recipient can view the 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 FTC’s complaint alleged that between January and May of 2009, hackers were able to gain administrative control of Twitter on two occasions. 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, lowercase, common dictionary word. Using the password, the hacker reset several 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 phony tweet was sent from the account of Fox News.
During a second security breach, in April 2009, a hacker was able to guess the administrative password of a Twitter empoyee after compromising the employee’s personal email account where two similar passwords were stored in plain text. The hacker reset at least one Twitter user’s password, and could access nonpublic user information and tweets for any Twitter users.
According to the FTC’s complaint, Twitter was vulnerable to these attacks because it failed to prevent unauthorized administrative control of its system, including reasonable steps to:
- require employees to use hard-to-guess administrative passwords that they did not use for other programs, websites, or networks;
- prohibit employees from storing administrative passwords in plain text within their personal e-mail accounts;
- suspend or disable administrative passwords after a reasonable number of unsuccessful login attempts;
- provide an administrative login webpage that is made known only to authorized persons and is separate from the login page for users;
- enforce periodic changes of administrative passwords, for example, by setting them to expire every 90 days;
- restrict access to administrative controls to employees whose jobs required it; and
- impose 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 protects the security, privacy, and confidentiality of nonpublic consumer information, including the measures it takes to prevent unauthorized access to nonpublic 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 an independent auditor every other year for 10 years.
The Commission vote approving the complaint and settlement was 5-0. The FTC will publish an announcement regarding the consent agreement in the Federal Register shortly. The agreement will be subject to public comment for 30 days, until July 26, 2010, after which the Commission will decide whether to make it final. To file a public comment, please click on the following hyperlink https://public.commentworks.com/ftc/twitter and follow the instructions at that site.
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.
The consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute admission by the respondent 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.
(FTC File No. 0923093)
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