We're living in the age of the hacker

Hack or be hacked.

Never in the history of written communication could 140 characters have the impact that they can have now

Two weeks ago, after gaining access to the Associated Press’s main Twitter account (@AP), the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) posted a fake tweet reporting two explosions in the White House and the injury of President Barack Obama. Within seconds, US financial markets dropped by about 1%.

Minutes later, Twitter was abuzz with refutations. Reporters at the White House tweeted that they felt no explosion, and AP reporters and the AP Politics Twitter account announced that @AP had been hacked. At his afternoon briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney confirmed that Obama was indeed unharmed. Financial markets returned to their pre-hoax level.

The @AP Twitter hoax represents systemic risk that cannot be eliminated, for it arises from the interaction of highly integrated financial markets and increasingly democratized news delivery. Given strong incentives for malicious parties to perpetrate such hoaxes, we should expect to see an increase in incidents.

Financial markets are vulnerable to manipulation, because they are not in the business of evaluating the truth. Trading often favours first movers, so being fast but wrong can still be profitable.

Imagine that a sophisticated trading firm has invested significant resources to develop an algorithm that quickly evaluates the potential market impact of news, and then automatically sends orders to trade based on that predicted impact. When that algorithm parses a tweet from the AP containing important keywords (explosion, White House, and Obama), it will send orders to sell with the expectation that the market will drop as others – first, slower algorithms, then even slower humans – start to process the same news.

The first mover is happy to make such trades without verifying that the news is true. If it is true, the market will stay down or continue dropping, and the first mover will profit from the sales that it has made. If the story is a hoax, the market will probably return to its earlier, fairly valued level, and the first mover will break even on its sales, and possibly profit from any position purchased as a hedge when the market was down. The first mover’s algorithm worked, regardless of the story’s veracity.

The likely losers in the @AP Twitter hoax were later movers who did not react quickly to the news, but reacted instead to the market’s movement.

These late movers were also likely to have been sophisticated electronic or institutional traders; some were probably using arbitrage-based strategies that relied on the futures market for a calculation of the fair price.

The market’s vulnerability to hoax stories is thus difficult to eliminate, for it is inherent in its structure. It cannot be regulated away or fixed by technology or surveillance.

Even if markets moved more slowly, there would still be a first mover who responded before such a news story was revealed as a hoax. This dynamic is similar to that of an asset bubble, albeit faster. In a bubble, valuations are based on collectively evaluated evidence, and those who enter the market earliest often benefit. Whether evaluating an assumption about the rise of house prices or whether a news story is true, the market does not provide a definitive answer instantaneously.

If protecting against hoaxes is not the market’s purview, can news agencies or new media entities like Twitter prevent such deception? To be sure, they have suffered reputational damage from this fiasco and will likely try to improve. But their efforts will not be enough.

Twitter’s vulnerabilities were technically understood before this event, and the service was already moving toward a more sophisticated authentication model (a password paired with a one-time key from a text message or other device). Twitter will likely implement this soon. It should also consider adding an optional “two-key” system, in which an independent signoff from a separate account is required before a proposed tweet is broadcast. But, while such measures would increase the difficulty of hacking the system, no technological fix can make it impenetrable.

What about the AP’s vulnerabilities? Attackers launched a “phishing” attempt against the AP’s emails shortly before the hoax tweet was sent. Phishing attacks, in which an employee is duped into sending a password to a third party or clicking an untrusted link that installs malicious software, represent a hybrid of cultural and technological failures.

As attackers become more sophisticated, they send better-crafted emails, sometimes impersonating trusted sources that lure unwary users. Crafting a culture of security is difficult and often at odds with the dynamic and decentralised work environment of a fast-moving newsroom.

This story can be read in full at economia

Chris Clearfield is a principal at System Logic, an independent research and consulting firm that focuses on issues of risk and complexity. András Tilcsik is an assistant professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a news story from economia.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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