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Twitter ‘insider attack’ highlights need to protect users’ private information - comment from Professor Mark Skilton

As two former Twitter employees face allegations of spying for Saudi Arabia, Professor Mark Skilton from Warwick Business School argues that the greater use of social media platforms by governments for political purposes highlights the need for stronger legislation to protect users’ private information.

Professor Mark Skilton said: “This is a social engineering attack, or sometimes called an ‘insider attack’, where a human agent attempts to exfiltrate sensitive personal data from employees, in this case Twitter personal data about users who are known critics of the Saudi Government. This is not the public tweets but the identities of Twitter accounts that may have been used anonymously by critics, but have some information held in private by Twitter that may have verified their true identity.

“This target is not surprising given the vast amount of personal data held by these big cloud social networks, and it’s a public case of an alleged illegal attempt to access private data on citizens by a foreign government for political gain. This is very topical for our time with the doubts cast over the US 2016 elections and recent allegations of governments pushing to get access to private personal data to undermine opponents to “activities” of pushing to expose whistleblowers. The Saudi government track record of the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the need to observe international law and human rights is what is at stake here.

“This is a violation of privacy and walks the problematic line of free speech and censorship that the recent Facebook and Twitter spat with political ads and the spread of fake information has highlighted. We need better controls to make privacy of identity a right, not something that is negotiated, bought and sold by unethical politicians and other individuals seeking clandestine attacks. It’s good this case was caught and exposed in time but it’s a small percentage of the huge problem of corporate responsibility and accountability that is not clear and not legislated effectively yet by governments to make sure corruption and personal threats to life are not exploited through hidden activities or fake information promoted by political lying. We need full exposure.”

7 November 2019

For more information contact:

Peter Thorley
Media Relations Manager (Warwick Medical School and Department of Physics)


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