(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.)
Laura DeNardis, American University School of Communication
(THE CONVERSATION) In case 2020 wasn’t dystopian enough, hackers on July 15 hijacked the Twitter accounts of former President Barack Obama, presidential hopeful Joe Biden, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Kim Kardashian and Apple, among others. Each hijacked account posted a similar fake message. The high-profile individual or company wanted to philanthropically give back to the community during COVID-19 and would double any donations made to a bitcoin wallet, identical messages said. The donations followed.
The hack on the surface may appear to be a run-of-the-mill financial scam. But the breach has chilling implications for democracy.
Serious political implications
As a scholar of internet governance and infrastructure, I see the underlying cybercrimes of this incident, such as hacking accounts and financial fraud, as far less concerning than the society-wide political implications. Social media – and Twitter in particular – is now the public sphere. Using a hijacked account, it would be simple to wreak economic damage, start a national security crisis or create a social panic.
Consider some of the potential threats to society posed by the takeover of technology infrastructure.
Market stability. Coordinated rogue tweets from the accounts of Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Microsoft could easily crash the stock market, at least temporarily, eroding confidence in markets.
Societal panic. A false warning about an impending terrorist attack from a major media company account could create a dangerous public panic.
National security. Twitter is the platform of choice for President Donald Trump. A foreign adversary hijacking his account and announcing a nuclear strike on North Korea could be catastrophic.
Democracy. Hijacked accounts could sow well-timed political disinformation that sways or seeks to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election.
As such, what happened is not about financial crime. It is a serious threat to us all.
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