Twitter hackers with ideas for hilarious stunts should get a move on

Twitter is finally on to you.

Last week I wrote about Twitter's upcoming hospitality to targeted advertising, and what this means for its users (almost definitely a dystopian nightmare). But Twitter is strangely inhospitable to advertisers in other ways - making a branded account something of a liability.

Branded accounts only have the same security as the rest of us - just the one username and password. As a result, a growing number of official accounts have fallen victim to hacking. Last week it was Burger King, which got taken over by Anonymous-affiliated hackers. It was soon branded with the Mcdonalds logo and issuing tweets like this:

We just got sold to McDonalds! Look for McDonalds in a hood near you @DFNCTSC

And then earlier this year there was the HMV clusterfuck, courtesy of some employees in the process of being fired. From the official account:

There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand. #hmvXFactorFiring,

Sorry we've been quiet for so long.Under contract, we've been unable to say a word, or – more importantly – tell the truth.

Just overheard our Marketing Director (he's staying, folks) ask 'How do I shut down Twitter?'

It's also happened, in various ways, to Jeep, NBC News, USA Today and Donald Trump, and all of those incidents were likewise funny. The thing is that official Twitter accounts are nigh on irresistible to hackers. There's something of the getting-down-with-the-kids about branded Twitter accounts, with their ulterior motivated chattiness and their thinly veiled desperation, and it's always tempting to remind them that they're still not really one of us.

So should Twitter be doing more to protect these accounts? At the moment it is running several paid options for advertisers - none of which include the option to up their security. But then why should it offer this? It would be a canny move to introduce it only later in the game, when more hacker attacks have increased the fear, and companies have accumulated more followers, raising the stakes.

The trouble is that at the moment this potential revenue is being siphoned off by third parties like Hootsuite, whose products let you manage your account a little more securely, and which get a boost everytime a company is publicly hacked. Unsurpisingly therefore, last Wednesday Twitter introduced a product facilitating ad promotion through third parties like this. It looks like the start of a move to finally get offical accounts a little safer. But is Twitter too late to the party, or too early? Either way, it's starting to twig, and potential hackers better get a move on with their hilarious stunts, before it's too late.

 
Twitter may be about to clamp down security. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.