The Consequences of Data Mishandling: Twitter, TransUnion, and WhatsApp

by | Oct 15, 2019

Who should you trust? This week highlights the personal privacy risks and organizational consequences when data is mishandled or utilized against the best interest of the account holder. Twitter provides advertisers with user phone numbers that had been used for two-factor authentication, 37,000 Canadians’ personal information is leaked in a TransUnion cybersecurity attack, and a GDPR-related investigation into Facebook and Twitter threatens billions in fines.
Twitter shared your phone number with advertisers.

Early this week, Twitter admitted to using the phone numbers of users, which had been provided for two-factor authentication, to help profile users and target ads. This allowed the company to create “Tailored Audiences,” an industry-standard product that enables “advertisers to target ads to customers based on the advertiser’s own marketing lists.” In other words, the profiles in the marketing list an advertiser uploaded were matched to Twitter’s user list with the phone numbers users provided for security purposes.

When users provided their phone numbers to enhance account security, they never realized that this would be the tradeoff. This manipulative approach to gaining user-information raises questions over Twitter’s data privacy protocols. Moreover, the fact that they provided this confidential information to advertisers should leave you wondering what other information is made available to business partners and how (Source). 

Curiously, after realizing what happened, rather than come forward, the company rushed to hire Ads Policy Specialists to look into the problem. 

On September 17, the company “addressed an “error” that allowed advertisers to target users based on phone numbers.” (Source) That same day, they then posted a job advertisement for someone to train internal Twitter employees on ad policies, and to join a team working on re-evaluating their advertising products.

Now, nearly a month later, Twitter has publicly admitted their mistake and said they are unsure how many users were affected. While they insist no personal data was shared externally, and are clearly taking steps to ensure this doesn’t occur again, is it too late?

Third-Party Attacks: How Valid Login Credentials Led to Banking Information Exposure 

A cybersecurity breach at TransUnion highlights the rapidly increasing threat of third party attacks and the challenge to prevent them. The personal data of 37,000 Canadians was compromised when legitimate business customer’s login credentials were used illegally to harvest TransUnion data. This includes their name, date of birth, current and past home addresses, credit and loan obligation, and repayment history. While this may not include information on bank account numbers, social insurance numbers may also have been at risk. This compromise occurred between June 28 and July 11 but was not detected until August (Source).

While alarming, these attacks are very frequent, accounting for around 25% of cyberattacks in the past year. Daniel Tobok, CEO of Cytelligence Inc. reports that the threat of third party attacks is increasing, as more than ever, criminals are using the accounts of trusted third parties (customers, vendors) to gain access to their targets’ data. This method of entry is hard to detect due to the nature of the actions taken. In fact, often the attackers are simulating the typical actions taken by the users. In this case, the credentials for the leading division of Canadian Western Bank were used to login and access the credit information of nearly 40,000 Canadians, an action that is not atypical of the bank’s regular activities (Source).

Cybersecurity attacks like this are what has caused the rise on two-factor authentication, which looks to enhance security -perhaps in every case other than Twitter’s. However, if companies only invest in hardware, they only solve half the issue, for the human side of cybersecurity is a much more serious threat than often acknowledged or considered. “As an attacker, you always attack the weakest link, and in a lot of cases unfortunately the weakest link is in front of the keyboard.” (Source)

 

Hefty fines loom over Twitter and Facebook as the Irish DPC closes their investigation.

The Data Protection Commission (DPC) in Ireland has recently finished an investigation into Facebook’s WhatsApp and Twitter over breaches to GDPR (Source). These investigations looked into whether or not WhatsApp provided information about the app’s services in a transparent manner to both users and non-users, and about a Twitter data breach notification in January 2019.

Now, these cases have moved onto the decision-making phase, and the companies are now at risk of a fine up to 4% of their global annual revenue. This means Facebook could expect to pay more than $2 billion.

This decision moves to Helen Dixon, Ireland’s chief data regulator, and we expect to hear by the end of the year. These are landmark cases, as the first Irish legal proceedings connected to US companies since GDPR came into effect a little over a year ago (May 2018) (Source). Big tech companies are on edge about the verdict, as the Irish DPC plays the largest GDPR supervisory role over most big tech companies, due to the fact that many use Ireland as the base for their EU headquarters. What’s more, the DPC has opened dozens of investigations into other major tech companies, including Apple and Google, and perhaps the chief data regulator’s decision will signal more of what’s to come (Source).

In the end, it is clear that the businesses and the public must become more privacy-conscious, as between Twitter’s data mishandling, the TransUnion third-party attack, and the GDPR investigation coming to a close, it is clear that privacy is affecting everyday operations and lives.

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