Morning Brief

An Insecure Twitter Means an Insecure World

Yesterday’s hacking scam shows how frail our digital institutions really are.

The Twitter logo is displayed on a banner outside the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on November 7, 2013 in New York City.
The Twitter logo is displayed on a banner outside the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on November 7, 2013 in New York City. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: An unprecedented Twitter hack hijacks high-profile accounts, China reports a return to growth in the second quarter of 2020, and Tunisia’s prime minister resigns.

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Twitter Hack Exposes Frailty of the Digital Public Square

Twitter accounts belonging to high-profile business leaders and politicians were hacked yesterday in the biggest security breach in the website’s 14-year history, opening a new range of possibilities for disinformation campaigns.

In a statement on its website, Twitter said that the hack was caused by a “coordinated social engineering attack by people who successfully targeted some of our employees with access to internal systems and tools.” The admission suggests the company’s internal systems were compromised, and individual users were not at fault. Reporting in Vice suggests it may have been an inside job.

Fortunately, the goal of the hackers was more con artist than saboteur. Accounts belonging to business leaders such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as well as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and former U.S. President Barack Obama all posted a version of the same message: A call to donate money to a cryptocurrency account in return for your money back twice over.

Despite the millions of followers these accounts have, the scam seems to have convinced very few of them. Only about $120,000 in bitcoin has been deposited to the hacker’s accounts, according to Reuters.

There were other more mundane effects: With all “verified” accounts frozen in the wake of the hack, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was demoting his 2020 campaign manager using the less media-friendly Facebook instead.

Digital world. Real effects. Although the refrain “Twitter is not real life” is often used as a putdown toward the social media-addled masses, the website can have an outsized grip on reality. In 2013, a hacker took control of the Associated Press Twitter account and wrote a hoax tweet describing explosions at the White House. The tweet was quickly deleted, but not before tricking high-frequency trading algorithms—sending the U.S. stock market into a flash crash. Given the propensity of President Trump to dictate policy via Twitter and its resulting real world effects, it’s lucky that Wednesday’s hackers appear to have been only looking for money.

Who is tweeting? The hack comes at a rough time for Twitter, which despite being a media darling and political prop, is struggling to retain ordinary users. The company stopped sharing the number of total users on its platform in 2019 following months of consistent decline. Only 22 percent of U.S. adults reported using Twitter in 2019, compared to 69 percent who said they use Facebook.

What We’re Following Today

China reports a return to growth. China’s economy grew 3.2 percent in the second quarter of 2020, Chinese officials announced today, making it the first major economy to return to growth following the coronavirus pandemic. China’s economy had suffered in the first three months of the year, contracting 6.8 percent. Hopes for a V-shaped recovery in China will depend on how the rest of the world fares; about one-fifth of China’s overall economic growth is driven by exports, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Tunisian prime minister resigns. Tunisian Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh resigned on Wednesday, heading off a potential no-confidence vote in the country’s parliament. Fakhfakh is alleged to have profited from owning shares in companies that were awarded state contracts, although he denies any wrongdoing. President Kais Saied has ten days to nominate a new prime minister, who will then have 30 days to form a new government. Given the already divided nature of Tunisia’s parliament (no party currently holds more than a quarter of seats), fresh elections could be on the horizon.

Apple wins in Europe tax case. The EU’s General Court has dealt a blow to EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager and her campaign to rein in Big Tech. The court sided with Apple on the subject of a $14.8 billion tax bill that the EU said the company owed to Ireland. EU officials had argued that Apple gained special treatment from Irish tax authorities, allowing it to avoid paying high taxes on its billions in profits. Both Ireland and Apple contended they were operating within existing tax law.

The case is unlikely to be the end of Vestager’s tech crusade. In an interview with Ravi Agrawal in the Summer issue of Foreign Policy, Vestager says the momentum for countries to cooperate on antitrust legislation is increasing.

OPEC agrees to increase production. OPEC+, the grouping of OPEC that includes Russia and other oil producers has agreed to ease oil production cuts. Oil producing nations had agreed to cut production in May following cratering demand amid a global standstill. Saudi Energy Minister Abdulaziz bin Salman said the anticipated demand for fuel as the global economy recovers from the coronavirus pandemic led to the decision.

Keep an Eye On 

World leaders speak out on vaccine availability. Writing in the Washington Post, leaders from Canada, Ethiopia, South Korea, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and Tunisia have issued a joint call for any coronavirus vaccine to be distributed equally and according to a “set of transparent, equitable and scientifically sound principles.” The statement comes as worries grow that protectionism may prevent poorer countries from receiving a vaccine at the same time as richer ones. According to the health news site STAT, the United States, India, and China should expect to be first in line for a vaccine, given the scale of their production capacities. 

U.N. environmental chief issues Yemen warning. An abandoned fuel tanker moored off the coast of Houthi-controlled Yemen is a “a looming environmental, economic and humanitarian catastrophe,” United Nations Environment Chief Inger Andersen told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday. The tanker holds 1.1 million barrels of crude oil, and its deteriorating condition could lead to an oil spill four times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. Houthi rebels, who control access to the port housing the tanker, have previously dismissed U.N. attempts to assess the ship, but last week offered to allow inspectors to access it. A similar offer made last August was rescinded the night before a planned U.N. mission.

Odds and Ends 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been forced to deny speculation that he was poking fun at Chinese President Xi Jinping by posting a picture of his dog, Mercer, with a stuffed toy Winnie the Pooh at the dog’s feet. Chinese censors have targeted images of the A.A. Milne creation ever since 2013, when internet users began posting images highlighting the bear’s apparent resemblance to the Chinese leader. When asked by an Iowa conservative radio host whether it was intention to troll Xi with the photo, Pompeo departed from his customary anti-China stance. “No, I imagine there were a series of stuffed animals, and they were equally distributed for Mercer’s benefit,” he said.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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