Saturday, August 15, 2009

Attack of the Tweets

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you've heard about Twitter, the online service that lets users post 140 character dispatches of their comings and goings. Once you sign up for a free account, you can send such missives to whomever signs up as your "followers," enabling them to tap into your contemporaneous thoughts, observations and activities. It's a cross between email, instant messaging and Headline News, all wrapped into a neat little package for those who feel compelled to star in their own reality TV show.

The real question is if really anybody cares what's happening to you on a minute by minute basis. It's true that in some cases the information can be interesting, as a quick scan of various real tweets demonstrates. Maybe you're in Mission Control at NASA ("Endeavour has completed its deorbit burn and begun the descent for a 10:48aET landing in Fla"). Or perhaps you're on patrol in Afghanistan ("Taliban bomb making team destroyed as they planted an IED"). Or maybe you're Oprah ("Got to hug Whoopi. Haven't seen her since????! What a fun night."). Depending on your particular bent, any or all of these could interest, inform or amuse you.

But if you're like rest of us, the dispatches you make are likely to make for less than compelling reading. Whether current users are talking about daily activities ("up early ready to hit the gym!"), spouses ("Proud owner of dozen doughnuts husband brought home for breakfast... make that 8.") or neighbors ("my neighbor is almost as cute as her dog. go figure."), you wonder why someone wasted the keystrokes.

Still, there is no doubt that it has found a following. Twitter is widely reported to be the fastest growing social networking site on the web. A blog reported that it experienced monthly growth of 1,382% in February, as compared to Facebook's 228%. In June the site recorded 44 million unique visitors. That's an awful lot of "What should I cook for dinner? Cooking must be easy, food yummy, recipe not overwhelming" type posts of interest to somebody... just not to me.

Yet it spite of my apathy, an attack on Twitter this past week was of consternation to many. For several hours, the site was shut down by unknown hackers that seemed based somewhere in Eastern Europe. While it was a non-event for some, others were not so blasé. According to CNN, "Some Twitter users expressed near-panic that the site was not working properly." After all, if you can't tell your friends that you are "Watching some Japanese movie called Death Note... surprisingly it's quite nice," that's a major problem.

But in a bigger context, it turns out that the disruption was actually part of a real conflict, and Ashton Kutcher, Twitter's most followed poster, was merely an innocent bystander. As reported in The New York Times, the attack was an extension of the tiff between Russia and Georgia. More specifically, it appeared to be targeted at one economics professor from Sukhumi State University who identified himself only as Giorgi, and who was revisiting the events of a year ago. Said Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer of the Internet security firm F-Secure, it was "the equivalent of bombing a TV station because you don't like one of the newscasters." Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann best take note.

Perhaps that in part explains why the Pentagon is entering the fray. In an order issued coincidently just before the attack, the Marine Corps banned access to social networking sites like Twitter from its computer systems for the next year. "These internet sites in general are a proven haven for malicious actors and content and are particularly high risk due to information exposure, user generated content and targeting by adversaries." The order says the sites, by their very nature, expose "unnecessary information to adversaries." After all, there's no telling what tactical advantage a terrorist might have if he reads Brad Pitt's tweet "will be busy the whole week here in Cannes."

Still, as been said repeatedly, we can't let fear rule our lives. And perhaps that's why in spite of the edict handed down to the grunts in the field, those at the top are tweeting as usual. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has over 5,000 followers on Twitter. One his latest posts comments directly on the order: "Obviously we need to find right balance between security and transparency. We are working on that. But am I still going to tweet? You bet."

It's not quite the same as "Give me liberty of give me death." But in this day and age, as a statement of principle in the face of adversity, it'll have to do.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't follow anybody and nobody follows him. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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