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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories