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Social Media: Valuable or Dangerous?


Aaron Barr, former CEO of HBGary Federal, presents his talk “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Media” at the third annual International Conference on Cyber Security Photo by Bruce Gilbert

If anyone understands the impact of cyber crime, it’s Aaron Barr.

Barr was the CEO of HBGary Federal when Anonymous, a “hacktivist” group, eviscerated the company’s servers in early 2011.

Barr had been preparing to expose the hackers responsible for “Operation Payback,” a large-scale denial-of-service attacks on MasterCard, Visa and other groups that denounced WikiLeaks. In retaliation, the pro-WikiLeaks hacking group broke into the HBGary website, destroyed its data and published thousands of emails online.

Even as a victim of cyber crime, Barr promotes a pro-social media message nonetheless.

Now the director of cyber security for Sayres and Associates, Barr told participants of the third annual International Conference on Cyber Security that social media is pervasive in contemporary culture and will not be losing followers anytime soon.

“We’re in the midst of an information revolution in how we interface and interact with information through mobile devices and social media. This has resulted in the Internet somewhat collapsing on itself into these hyper-giant platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and that’s going to continue as they’re looking to provide and tailor web content to us that’s more relevant,” Barr said.

“We’re going to be constantly connected, rather than the 1990s and early-2000s model of having this technology and information separate from our daily lives.”

According to Barr, the prevalence of these platforms has transformed the way we work and communicate. Local-based technologies such as Foursquare cater to the needs of particular communities; Wi-Fi enables any café, hotel or airport to function as a remote office; and mobile devices provide nonstop access to myriad information about people, places and events.

“It will provide to us eventually an augmented sense of reality,” Barr said. “We’ll be able to not only have that information pushed to us, but also look through our device and get an enhanced view of physical world and view the information that’s available that overlays that physical space.

In addition, social media allows anyone to enter into dialogue or broadcast information and opinions about a particular event or topic.

Facebook and Twitter have played crucial roles in several major events, including the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. A favorite example among social media pundits remains Sohaib Athar, who live tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid.

“Anyone can be a digital celebrity if they garner a big enough audience,” Barr pointed out.

Aaron Barr offers both encouragement and caution about social media. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Of course, as Barr knows better than most, social media users must also take precautions against cyber threats. In addition to its many resources, the Internet brings significant security, privacy and civil liberty concerns, all of which are increased by the lack of a legal framework prepared to address them.

Our online activities and interactions with others render us vulnerable to hackers; conversely, our personal interactions create vulnerabilities for those with whom we interact.

“We’ve got Facebook profiles, Twitter profiles and LinkedIn profiles, but our digital persona is really the aggregation of all those profiles and digital artifacts that are interspersed all over the Web… Individually, those things are very difficult, if not impossible, for us to manage,” Barr warned.

“If you look at it from an adversarial standpoint, what somebody can tell about you based off the aggregation of that information is, to me, sometimes startling.”

Barr offered the example of an Apple employee whose LinkedIn profile explicitly stated his location and his title at Apple, a title that made it obvious that he was engineering the new iPhone. A search of this individual’s name yielded his Foursquare account, which named various businesses he frequented.

“Now I can target the individual that has the technology I want and I know where he goes. That’s all I need for corporate espionage,” Barr said.

“An adversary doesn’t want to target an individual necessarily—they want to target an organization. But if you’re going to conduct social media attacks, the way you’re going to do that is through their employees.”

For that very reason, though, Barr contends that utilizing social media is critical. Its preponderance in contemporary culture requires that individuals—especially high-profile individuals and those involved with security—at least become familiar with the technology.

“I realize that having those accounts can make you vulnerable, but not having those accounts makes you vulnerable as well,” Barr said. “If you’re not knowledgeable with how these things work, it’s just going to make you more vulnerable when you’re forced to [use them]… It’s an active, defensive, protective model that we need to use where we’re engaging it, but we’re also protecting ourselves.”

“It’s a reality that we have to deal with,” he said.


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