Security risks evolve alongside social media

Next step may be two-way communication

Facebook and Twitter make it possible for government agencies to communicate and interact with the public in ways not possible just two years ago. But these social media tools also create new types of security risks that agencies must anticipate and plan for.

That was the view of security experts at the Open Government and Innovations Conference in Washington last week. “We talk about Web 2.0 like it is a fully evolved media when, in fact, it is not,” said Dan Willis, a consultant with Sapient Consulting and a conference panelist. The conference was sponsored by the 1105 Government Information Group, the parent company of Federal Computer Week.

So far social-media tools like blogs and Twitter are still largely based on one-to-many communication concepts used by traditional media like print and video, Willis said. Soon, he expects social media to break away from those foundations and become capable of two-way communication in ways that do not exist today.

“That may create a whole different kind of security challenge,” he said.

The shift from broadcasting information to the public to more direct interaction opens up agencies to new security issues, said Mark Morrison, deputy associate director of national intelligence for intelligence community information assurance at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“From a security perspective, you lay yourself open for more vulnerabilities and more attacks by allowing the protocols, communications and the acceptance of data from outside sources that cannot be trusted and you do not know,” Morrison said.

At the very least, the emerging technology offers a new jumping off point for hackers to launch familiar attacks like the denial-of-service attacks launched against Web sites in the United States and South Korea earlier this month, he said.

Agencies that adopt social media need to strike a balance between providing access to information and securing back-end systems, Morrison said.

“The last thing you want to do is provide access to information and allow external forces to be able to break through your outer perimeter and get into the soft crunch middle,” he said.

To find that balance, each agency needs to assess it risk, said Simon Szykman, chief information officer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Because social media is usually free and easy to use, people working in government are tempted to start using it without understanding the risks, Szykman said.

“In government, security is sometimes viewed as an obstacle, but by going around it employees are not necessarily being good stewards of the government mission or information they are entrusted with,” Szykman said.

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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