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					**Note: technology moves quickly, and since writing this piece, a number of things I
wrote about have changed.**

                                                                     Candace Ren Burnham
                                                  http://rensmicrodiplomacy.wordpress.com
                                                                     Assignment #1: Op-Ed
                                                                          Due on 2/4/2009

                                    Twitter for Terrorists

       From ABC.com to Wired Magazine, nearly every major news source covered the

release of an US Army issued report suggesting that Twitter.com will be the next tool of

domestic and international terrorists. This micro-blogging website asks users, “What are

you doing?” and allows them to post “Tweets” (i.e. status updates) no longer than 140

characters. The Army claims terrorists can use this technology to increase

communication within their organization and carry out attacks. While the report offers

three possible scenarios to illustrate their point, there seem to be major limitations the

Army did not consider before releasing it. The most obvious is the fact that Twitter does

not support Arabic. Those who prefer to communicate in Arabic need to use an

alternative interface such as www.artwitter.com. This limitation is the first of several that

are substantial enough that Twitter is unlikely to be the next technology terrorists subvert

for their own use.

       The first scenario in the report describes an operative using a cell phone to send

and receive tweets to and/or from a predetermined group of people. This method of

communication was used by activists at the Republican National Convention and the

report proposes terrorists could update others on their location in the same way. A

technological barrier to this use is that Twitter currently does not offer group messaging.

Tweets are either sent privately to an individual or are public messages.
Circumnavigating this barrier creates additional problem that compromises its feasibility.

For example, a website (http://thejeshgn.com) offers a hack that could allow a user to

send updates to a group, but messages are delayed up to 30 minutes. Otherwise, terrorists

could download a third party application like Group Tweet that requires all members to

login under the group’s username and password. While both of these are feasible, they

are probably not worth the effort when it is easier to continue using a fast technology they

already own and use: cell phone text messaging.

       In the second report scenario, operative “A” carries a cell phone and an explosive

device allowing him/her to send operative “B” tweets and take photos showing “A’s”

location. Operative “B” controls the detonator, and can use the tweets and photos to

decide the right moment to trigger the explosive. To communicate this information,

operative “A” would have to stop, type out the tweet on the small keypad, take photos

and press send (both the tweet and the photo must be sent separately since Twitter does

not support photo attachment to messages). This might be a bit conspicuous, slow and

unreliable (what if the location is too dark to take a visible photo with the built-in

camera?). In this situation, the GPS already available in most cell phones would be more

efficient and accurate than the combination of twitter and a camera. Operative “B” can

still monitor “A” in real time to get “A’s” exact location, and a 10-second phone call can

answer any questions.

       The last scenario in the report proposes that terrorists can follow the tweets of

American soldiers to gain information about their location. Of the three scenarios listed,

this is the most plausible as anyone with a twitter account (including a terrorist) can gain

this information. Based on the samples of soldier tweets provided in the report, it is
obvious that too much information is being broadcast to the general public. Major

security issues can be averted if soldiers are educated properly of the potential hazards of

tweeting sensitive information.

       In addition to these settings, the report mentions the use of Twitter for gaining

publicity and support. Terrorists and/or supporters can tweet about recent activities and

voice their opinions on a variety of topics pertaining to their cause. While this could be

effective for communicating with those already interested in the terrorist’s cause, it

would not be an effective method of recruiting. Swaying new supporters can be tough to

do in only 140 characters at one’s disposal, and the number of people these messages

reach is limited to those who not only use Twitter, but also have specifically chosen to

follow the tweets of these individuals. Of those who have internet access (21% of the

population in the Middle East, for example), only a small percentage of the small

percentage that uses Twitter will see the message. Terrorists can find larger audiences

elsewhere on the internet by posting detailed, convincing arguments to their own

organization’s website, message boards and even through videos sites such as

www.youtube.com.

       The main reasons why Twitter won’t be terrorist’s first choice for communication

is that it stores personally identifiable information and creates an electronic paper trail

within a vacuum. Counterterrorist experts can monitor for keywords and trace messages

to IP addresses and cell phones, creating a huge risk of terrorist discovery. They can

even pose as operatives or sympathizers, collecting information or spreading

disinformation. With the availability of other more private, inexpensive, readily available

modes of communication, the risk to reward ratio of using Twitter is not in the terrorist’s
favor. For this reason, the Army should be looking elsewhere for the next Website of

Mass Destruction.


Sources:
Original report issued by the US Army: http://www.fas.org/irp/eprint/mobile.pdf
Arabic Twitter interface: http://www.artwitter.com/
Internet usage statistics: http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

				
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