The past week has thrown up a couple of instances where the content of your Twitter account can be grounds for prosecution (or persecution, depending on your perspective).  Paul Chambers was charged with “Menace over a communications network”, found guilty and fined £2,000. Tory Councillor, Gareth Compton (a barrister no less) was also charged after making a comment asking for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to be stoned.  In these cases, the individuals admitted that they wrote the offending tweets, but in many others, whether by celebrities, elected officials or others, the claim has been made that messages were submitted by someone else, and without their knowledge.

So how easy is it to hack in to someone else’s Twitter account? How strong is Twitter’s security.  What are the ways to produce a Spoof message from someone else’s account?

Firstly, it’s very easy to retweet (RT) a message that never actually originated elsewhere.  Simply write the message as if you are quoting them, and it looks like they actually wrote it.  You can even RT and amend the content of their actual message.  Of course, this is easily cleared up by checking the original account, but can still cause great embarrassment.  Another way to fox a fellow tweeters is to set up an account in a false name, say @TheQueen and carry on the charade in that name.  You can trick those who follow you by changing your name later to something embarrassing, like @ILikeSexWithGerbils.  A nosey journalist would then want to know why an elected MP was following that account.

In my late teens I had a job selling fax machines (remember them?).  It was clear straightaway that you could program any telephone number into the identifying header, so that a recipient would think that’s where a fax message came from.  A rude fax, seemingly from a competitor to a prospective client could therefore give a commercial advantage.  The same thing is done now with spoof spam emails which can appear to come from your account.

Most people are far looser with their Twitter security than other online accounts too. There are countless Twitter platforms to use, and services to connect with, that all ask for access to your Twitter account.  Most of us feel comfortable granting it, and freely enter our account name and password.  The fact that many people use the same password for everything never occurs to them as a security risk, or indeed that once compromised, anything written on their Twitter will be directly attributable to them.

So in the current climate, can text written on a Twitter account be founded upon in a legal case?  Unless you admit it outright, I would say not.  Unless a witness saw you actually typing the words, or the log on your pc, blackberry, iphone etc confirmed it, then strictly speaking it could have been written by anyone.  Much the same as a speed camera might catch your car doing 120mph, it may not be able to prove that you were driving at the time.

Dangerous legal precedents are being set right now, regarding all forms of modern communications.  I suggest we all be aware of where it might lead to.

Stephen O'Donnell is a lifelong recruiter, internet enthusiast, fadgadget and peripatetic writer.

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