Agencies shore up social media security

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Federal agencies wasted little time shoring up social media security policies after a highly publicized April 23 hack of the Associated Press' Twitter account prompted the General Services Administration to issue new guidelines.

The hacked tweet – which briefly confused the public after falsely claiming the president was injured in an explosion – and GSA's new guidelines two days later provided all the incentive most agencies needed to avoid being the next AP.

"When the guidelines came out, we started talking about it amongst ourselves to make sure we followed those processes," said Scott Horvath, web and social media coordinator for the United States Geological Survey. Horvath oversees the agency's 40-plus social media accounts that regularly release information to the public on topics ranging from agency updates to earthquake alerts.

"We had some things in place as far as our social media accounts are concerned, but this has gotten people thinking, and we've put something together that lays out processes based off those guidelines that are tailored for us," Horvath added. "It's good that the issue was raised -- sometimes I think people tend to forget."

The guidelines were authored by Justin Herman, new media manager at the GSA's Center for Excellence in Digital Government, and offer "common sense" precautions to agencies for avoiding social media hacks. The recommendations also cover how to handle hacks when they occur, and how to respond to tweets from hacked accounts – all issued raised through the AP incident.

USGS was one of several agencies to embrace the guidelines, according to Herman, as was the U.S. Navy. That service's emerging media deputy director, Jason Kelly, republished the guidelines on the department's Tumblr page with directions for staff on how to handle these social media issues.

"The response was very swift," Herman said. "Some preventative and response measures are outlined in pre-existing security policies, but when this sort of thing happens, it's always smart to pause and take another look."

No government officials stepped up via social media to falsify the hacked AP tweet, instead allowing traditional media to deal with it while the Dow dropped and social media panic briefly ensued. Beyond prevention methods – like using strong passwords and not using the same password across multiple accounts – social media heads at other federal agencies said their policies changed the most in regards to responding to breaches or other hacked accounts.

An official from an agency that deals heavily with sensitive economic data told FCW the agency has entirely reworked how it would handle a hacked social media account.

The official said the agency put together concise language that would engage citizens if a hack ever occurred. Most people don't understand the difference between a hacked social media account and a hacked server with critical information on it, the source said.

Myth-busting, easy-to-read responses on tap in case a social media breach occurs would likely alleviate much of the public outcry, and potentially save agency call center workers from long days at the office.

Herman said federal guidelines – at least in regards to social media – will continue to evolve at the speed at which technology and capabilities demand. With changes like two-tiered authentication for social media accounts potentially on the horizon, and increased public interaction with federal agencies via social media, it's a good bet the guidelines will be updated more frequently going forward.

"Everything now is based on capabilities we have at this moment, but the minute that apps change or policies and protocols or security services in the platforms themselves change, we'll be on top of it and make sure the rest of the federal government knows about it too," Herman said.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.


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