November 15, 2009

Trick or Tweet? Is Twitter a Viable Emergency Notification System?

Posted in Best practices, Criminal activity, Employee issues, Facebook, LinkedIn, Social Media Tools, Social networking policy, Twitter tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 11:40 pm by bizlawblog

Trick or Tweet? That question is not intended to remind you of what you hear on Halloween, when your neighbor’s kid knocks on your door and asks the annual question with a lisp.

We recently finished Halloween shenanigans, where kids disguise themselves as fictional characters and knock on doors in their neighborhood, traditionally asking if you’d like to give them a treat or risk a less enjoyable alternative. The question raised in this post, however, is whether use of social media, and Twitter in particular, is a bit of the same situation. Is Twitter being touted as a viable emergency notification system when it is not fit for that important purpose? A companion question might be whether we, as customers (i.e. The “Twitterati”), are putting pressure on this social media channel to transform itself into something for which it was not originally intended.

Many schools may start using social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook as a more regular part of their emergency notification program. A variety of vendors are coming up with way to make this happen.

In a move that plenty of other institutions are sure to follow, Oregon’s Pacific University has integrated its emergency notification system with the popular social networking sites Facebook and Twitter. The move allows the 3,100-student university to send emergency messages to students via e-mail, RSS feed, or text message to mobile phones, Blackberries, wireless PDAs, pagers, and smart or satellite phones–and now Twitter or Facebook.

The university subscribes to an emergency notification system from Omnilert’s e2Campus that allows administrators to send a single message to a designated list of recipients on a variety of devices and in various formats. In November, e2Campus added Twitter and Facebook as options–and Pacific University was the first institution to jump on board.

University Links Twitter, Facebook with Notification System

My last post, Did Twitter Replace Cell Phones for Ft. Hood Shooting News?, mentioned that even the military recommended Twitter as an emergency information source, when a sudden surge in emergency traffic crashed the civilian cell phone system in the Ft. Hood area. As a country, the United States has been blessed with fewer natural disasters than many countries. Clearly, we are still trying to digest the disaster preparedness and recovery lessons from far-reaching events like hurricane Katrina, which likewise disrupted cell phone traffic in a number of ways. Is Twitter any better?

Matt Williams, Assistant Editor of Government Technology Magazine, posted an interesting article, mentioning some of the many uses the U.S. government is making of Twitter:

When Twitter’s founders launched the service in 2006, they advertised it as a way to keep abreast of friends’ everyday lives. The idea of “tweeting” in short bursts about mundane details – “I’m watching Dancing with the Stars!” – may seem narcissistic, or pointless. But a loyal following has found novel and unexpected applications for the service. This movement includes government agencies, which are use Twitter for various functions, such as real-time alerts about emergencies, election results and even science projects.

The most practical government applications for Twitter are in public safety and emergency notification. For example, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) updates its Twitter page with bulletins about structural fires, the number of responding firefighters, and injuries and casualties. A typical post is something like: “12126 Burbank Bl* No ‘formal’ evacuations; Firefighters maintaining 500′ exclusion zone pending LAFD Hazmat arrival…”

“The question really would be, why not do Twitter?” asked Bill Greeves, the county’s IT director. “It is 140 characters, so granted, you are limited in the message you put on there. But we’re not creating content for Twitter; we’re creating content to send out a message to the public, and we’re just taking advantage of the latest and greatest channels available.”

The beauty of it, Greeves said, is that if something better replaces Twitter or it all falls out of vogue, it won’t hurt the bottomline.

Governments use Twitter for Emergency Alerts, Traffic Notices and More

Williams’ article notes that one of the major hurdles to greater government use of Twitter may be “viewership,” but it appears even the U.S. State Department has taken note of Twitter’s potential use in an international context. An article by Lev Grossman, Iran Protests: Twitter, the Medium of the Movement, points out:

The U.S. State Department doesn’t usually take an interest in the maintenance schedules of dotcom start-ups. But over the weekend, officials there reached out to Twitter and asked them to delay a network upgrade that was scheduled for Monday night. The reason? To protect the interests of Iranians using the service to protest the presidential election that took place on June 12. Twitter moved the upgrade to 2 p.m. P.T. Tuesday afternoon — or 1:30 a.m. Tehran time.

So what exactly makes Twitter the medium of the moment? It’s free, highly mobile, very personal and very quick. It’s also built to spread, and fast. Twitterers like to append notes called hashtags — #theylooklikethis — to their tweets, so that they can be grouped and searched for by topic; especially interesting or urgent tweets tend to get picked up and retransmitted by other Twitterers, a practice known as retweeting, or just RT. And Twitter is promiscuous by nature: tweets go out over two networks, the Internet and SMS, the network that cell phones use for text messages, and they can be received and read on practically anything with a screen and a network connection.

This makes Twitter practically ideal for a mass protest movement, both very easy for the average citizen to use and very hard for any central authority to control. The same might be true of e-mail and Facebook, but those media aren’t public.

This use of Twitter in a mass crisis has apparently not gone without notice at headquarters. Twitter co-founder, Evan Williams, in comments to the BBC about the Iran-related maintenance delay said:

“We did it because we thought it was the best thing for supporting the information flow there at a crucial time, and that’s kind of what we’re about – supporting the open exchange of information.

“So it seemed like the right thing to do.”

Twitter Iran delay ‘not forced’

Is Twitter the new boss in social media town? Even networks like LinkedIn seem to be trying to attach themselves to it, as Taylor Singletary points out in his article on the LinkedIn blog, You want Tweets? There’s an App for that…:

As you’ve likely heard by now, we launched our first Twitter integration features at LinkedIn earlier this week.  For professionals who want to make Twitter part of their professional identity, you can now easily add your Twitter account to your LinkedIn profile, and seamlessly post LinkedIn status updates to Twitter, and vice-versa.

This launch also brings with it a brand new addition to the LinkedIn application platform: Tweets.

Tweets is an application that allows you to seamless integrate basic Twitter functionality into your LinkedIn experience.

Twitter itself, however, is not immune from interruption of service. Last August, it was the subject of an apparent denial of service attack. Eliot Van Buskirk’s article on Wired gives a nice outline of the event:

Twitter was shut down for hours Thursday morning by what it described as an “ongoing” denial-of-service attack, silencing millions of Tweeters. It was the first major outage the service has suffered in months and possibly the first ever due to sabotage. The outage appeared to begin mid-morning, EST, and affected users around the world. After about three hours, the service was coming back online in fits and starts.

In a denial-of-service attack, a malicious party barrages a server with so many requests that it can’t keep up, or causes it to reset. As a result, legitimate users can only access the server very slowly — or not at all, as appears to be the case here.

Not only was the site down, but client applications that depend on the Twitter API could also not connect to the service, creating a complete Twitter blackout. According to June ComScore numbers Twitter has more than 44 million registered users and its user base has been growing rapidly for months as it becomes better known in the mainstream.

Denial-of-Service Attack Knocks Twitter Offline

Twitter’s statement was, of course, less verbose:

We are defending against a denial-of-service attack, and will update status again shortly.

Update: the site is back up, but we are continuing to defend against and recover from this attack.

Update (9:46a): As we recover, users will experience some longer load times and slowness. This includes timeouts to API clients. We’re working to get back to 100% as quickly as we can.

Update (4:14p): Site latency has continued to improve, however some web requests continue to fail. This means that some people may be unable to post or follow from the website.

Ongoing denial-of-service attack

Some, such as Roberta Whitty, a member of the Gartner blog network, clearly feel it dangerous for organizations to rely upon Twitter:

The denial of service attack on Twitter should remind organizations that are automating their emergency call trees and crisis communications that a single end point isn’t good enough. Given the growth in social networking, more and more organizations are starting to think about leveraging these sites for emergency/crisis communications. But if it becomes your only end point, you risk not getting your message out when it is most needed – during a disaster.  In addition, no national telcom network has been tested for a regional disaster, so your phone messages might not get delivered either. Hence, build for emergency notification around multiple channels for best coverage. What is your organization doing to support best coverage?

Don’t Rely Only on Twitter for Emergency Notification

One must also wonder how the continuous barrage of scams might impact use of any form of social media as an emergency notification system. Michael Arrington’s article, Facebook To Increase Enforcement Of Anti-Scam Rules, points out:

Facebook says that deceptive ads are a widespread problem on the Web…

Anyone who doesn’t engage in scammy behavior right now is at a monetization disadvantage. There are real similarities between this issue and steroid use in baseball. As long as the MLB didn’t really enforce steroid use among players, it was a competitive necessity to take the drugs, and so many more players took them than otherwise would.

We know that companies such as Microsoft are the target of frequent attacks by hackers. Some of these may have gained insider knowledge as employees of their targets and are thus extraordinarily effective in their destructive efforts. How could any governmental entity, however, think it might be less likely to attract detractors?

Referring to last Augusts’ attacks against both facebook and Twitter, Ryan Singel’s article noted:

They don’t make any sense.

“I’m afraid two outliers make a line and there is something going on… We have entered the third generation of denial of service attacks, and anyone that plans on the rationality of criminals is at risk.”

What does that mean? It means if you make the assumption that the bad guys online are just a new breed of bank robbers, that can get you into trouble if there are a few sociopaths mixed in.

The ongoing attacks Thursday on Facebook and the micro-publishing site Twitter likely involve tens of thousands of compromised computers under the control of a single person. Likely the attack involves asking the sites to serve up a page of search results, or some other processor-intensive requests. That makes it hard to determine if the request is a real user action or a malicious fake.

Is There Rhyme or Reason to the Attacks on Twitter?

As the title of another of Ryan Singel’s articles tells us:

Security experts say the attacks on Twitter and Facebook are nothing new under the sun and that Distributed Denial of Service Attacks — which render a web server useless to real users by overwhelming the server with fake requests, are commonplace on the net. DDoS (pronounced dee-daas) attacks are usually carried out using a zombie army of infected Windows computers known as a botnet, where the controller tells the infected computers what site to bombard with requests.

“This kind of stuff happens every day, but when it happens on Twitter, people don’t know what to do with their thumbs,” said Paul Ferguson, a senior threat researcher for security giant Trend Micro.

And so far there’s nothing to indicate there’s anything particularly interesting about the attack from a technical perspective, according to security expert Tom Byrnes, the founder of ThreatStop, a network security company.

“Taking something down on the web is garden variety vandalism,” Byrnes said. “They aren’t doing anything new … someone has a botnet and they are just pounding on Twitter and Facebook.”

Twitter, Facebook Attacks No Surprise to Security Experts

So how do we reconcile these events? The government is recommending use of social media channels for emergency notification purposes. Schools and other organizations are rapidly adopting it as a significant part of their own emergency systems. At the same time, however, disgruntled employees and political activists are focusing their efforts at bringing down these emerging communication giants, and are doing so with amazing success.

If a single hacker can bring down the Twitter and Facebook networks, what damage could be done by a terrorist organization or, perhaps one of the many rogue nations we face in our global village? We can certainly hope these social media moguls will learn their lesson from these attacks and spend more of their effort on making these networks secure. We also know that, historically, the hackers often seem to be at least one step ahead of law enforcement, network security experts, and others upon whom we rely for protection.

We have likewise read stories about illegal probing of military and infrastructure networks, including those designed to make our nuclear facilities secure. Might we not anticipate that at least some of this probing may be leading up to attempts at breaching the defenses being tested. Sure, some of this may just be teens with too much computer time on their hands, or political dissidents whose focus in on something other than world destruction. On the other hand, are we setting ourselves up for the big bang by increasing our reliance upon social media for emergency news, rather than what this media was intended for originally?

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us.

Advertisements

November 6, 2009

Did Twitter Replace Cell Phones for Ft. Hood Shooting News?

Posted in Best practices, Criminal activity, Facebook, Productivity, Social Media Tools, Social networking policy, Twitter tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , at 11:41 am by bizlawblog

For some time now, I’ve been seeing more and more articles questioning whether newer social media channels were in the process of replacing, rather than supplementing, more “traditional” means of communication. I know many of my neighbors, and a few of the lawyers I know, have replaced their traditional “land line” with cell phones.

When I moved my office to the ‘burbs a few years ago, after practicing downtown for nearly thirty years, I had to hire a third party phone company to “move” the phone number I’d been advertising on business cards and stationary. Otherwise, I was faced with losing my long-standing number, which most lawyers considered something of a death sentence in those days. The result was, until about a week ago, that I paid one phone bill just for the old number, and then paid another phone bill for my trunk service, internet, roll-over numbers, etc.

I am in the process of painfully shedding the now “fake” number. What I’ve found, in just a few, short years since I moved my office out of downtown, was that when anyone from my office called out, the recipient picked up the non-advertised, local exchange number. They often plugged that into their cell phone or office phone’s electronic “address book” and simply pushed one button when they wanted to call us. The number they dialed, ended up being the unadvertised, local exchange number. This made the “prettier,” advertised number something of an anachronistic situation, with fewer and fewer clients, lawyers, judges, and others using it.

Eventually, keeping the old number just made less and less sense, because advances in technology and the way people were using technology dictated a new paradigm. After all, we’re rapidly moving in the direction of virtual law firms and consultants. Because of cell phone technology and office automation advances, I’m using making less use of a “static” office and spending much more time, in my law practice, in my consulting business, and as a pro bono SCORE counselor, visiting clients in their offices. Since I typically pick up much more information about my clients’ need when I visit their office than when they visit mine, this is a “good thing” for my clients and me. The paradigm is moving for me, and I’m thinking I’m not alone in this.

“Way back” in August of 2009, Mark ‘Rizzn’ Hopkins’ article, posted on the siliconANGLE blog, asked the question, Could WordPress Be the Natural Successor to Twitter, Friendfeed and Facebook? As we move from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 the borders between competing software applications and even between software and hardware are likely to blur. For now, however, the question remains, whether newer social media channels are in the process of replacing, rather than supplementing, more “traditional” means of communication. Recently, some friends on facebook responded to a comment I had made there, indicating this question might be increasingly likely to be answered in the affirmative. The very fact that I had posted something on facebook, being a relatively new user, and that there was a growing debate on this relatively new social networking channel, gives a premonition of where my thoughts on this lie.

Some pretty wise people have opined that you don’t really know a person until you see them in a stressful situation. It is then that you often have a better view into what makes them tick. The same is often true in business. What a company is made of is often not really seen until a crisis develops and they either come out on top or start a downward spiral. The same may be true of communication channels.

Sarah Needleman’s Wall Street Journal article, Entrepreneurs ‘Tweet’ Their Way Through Crises, demonstrates that businesses are starting to use Twitter and other social media to handle day-to-day crises. Needleman’s article points out:

The social-media service — where users send short “tweets” to followers who have signed up to receive the messages — came in handy for Innovative Beverage Group Holdings Inc., whose drankbeverage.com site crashed last month after a surge in traffic following a segment on Fox News for the company’s so-called relaxation beverage, which contains “calming” ingredients like valerian root and melatonin. News Corp. owns Fox News as well as The Wall Street Journal.

Innovative Beverage notified consumers on its Twitter feed that it was working to resolve the problem. The company also did a search on Twitter for mentions of the site crash, so it could respond with tweets describing its repair efforts.

Twitter gave us an up-to-the-minute ability to take what would normally be a crisis situation and make it just another event,” says Mr. Bianchi. “You can’t do that with a 1-800-number.”

As of Monday, drankbeverage.com had more than 1,000 Twitter followers.

KD Paine points out in an article on her blog, Can Twitter replace Walter Cronkite as “the most trusted ‘MAN’ in America”?, that there is a debate raging about the level of trust in the news we get these days, and, in particular whether we can trust the news and views from traditional media sources. Trust is one thing and access is another.

The horrible tragedy of the Ft. Hood shooting yesterday confirmed, for me at least, that there is a growing movement to use Twitter and other social media, rather than more traditional media, to convey news in a crisis. I heard that cell phone service essentially “crashed” during this Ft. Hood crisis, as soldiers from abroad tried to call family and comrades in the Ft. Hood area to learn what had happened. The Honolulu Advertiser‘s article, Shooting leaves 12 dead, 31 wounded reported:

The school and base were in lockdown. Normal phone lines were working but cell phones were overloaded.

“Now I can’t even get a hold of her. The cell phones are jammed. I can’t even send a text,” Biggers said. “They still have us on lockdown. I’m just staying right beside my computer with the news on and praying.”

Michael Winter’s article, A 13th death reported in the Fort Hood rampage, walks us through one version of the time line. Here’s a portion relevant to the point I’m making:

Update at 6:57 p.m. ET: Fort Hood officials are asking that family members trying to reach their loved ones should send a text message instead of calling, because phone circuits are overloaded.

Also, Twitter has three main threads for sending messages or following the story: FortHood, #FortHood and #FTHood.

Update at 6:30 p.m. ET: The Waco Chapter of the American Red Cross has a Web site where you can check on base personnel. Register here.

Eric Berlin’s article on Technorati, Fort Hood Shooting Spree: The Blogosphere Reacts, provides some insight, in terms of where all this might be headed:

The blogosphere is already responding in earnest to the horrific shooting spree at a Texas military base that resulted in 12 deaths and 31 wounded…

Twitter has become a central focus for communication, link sharing, information dissemination, and on the ground reporting during breaking news stories, so tech bloggers are looking at how Twitter is being used tonight. MG Siegler at TechCrunch speculates about how Twitter is influencing its Trending Topics feature to bring breaking news stories to the forefront immediately. “And that it may even in some way rank tweets to show more relevant ones for the topic at hand,” Siegler writes.

Twitter itself, seems to periodically question just how effective it is. An article on the Twitter Web site by Jenna Dawn, Get to the Point: Twitter Trends, even acknowledges:

As Twitter grows and the number of tweets each day continues to astound us, we’ve noticed an increasing amount of clutter in the public timeline, especially with trending topics. Trends began as a useful way to find out what’s going on but has grown less interesting due to the noisiness of the conversation.

As one cable network might say, “we report, you decide…” When the military is telling folks to try texting to get information, the Red Cross is setting up a Web site to help people check on base personnel who might have been involved in the crisis, and Twitter replaces a broken down cell phone system, I have to wonder if my original thoughts on the paradigm shift might not have been right.

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us.