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Privacy Perspectives | Tuning the Privacy/Customer Service Dial Related reading: Australian firm helped FBI open San Bernardino iPhone




Twitter handles can be valuable commodities, and no story better demonstrates that than one described by web developer Naoki Hiroshima. Originally published on his personal blog and then republished with permission by TheNextWeb, “How I lost my $50,000 Twitter username” describes the ordeal he went through when a hacker decided he wanted Hiroshima’s Twitter handle @N—registered to Hiroshima since 2007.

In a nutshell, a hacker decided he wanted @N and was going to do just about anything to get it—without paying any money, of course. To do so, according to the hacker himself (someone call "Ripley’s Believe It or Not"), he socially engineered his way into Hiroshima’s GoDaddy account, which controlled several of his website domains, in order to wrest control of @N from Hiroshima. Give up the Twitter handle and the hacker would take his hands off the throat of Hiroshima’s websites.

Extortion at its finest.

After acquiring control of @N, the hacker was willing to share how he exploited Hiroshima’s GoDaddy account. And what he divulged is disconcerting.

To: <*****@*****.***> Naoki Hiroshima
Date: Mon, 20 Jan 2014 19:53:52 -0800
Subject: RE: …hello

- I called paypal and used some very simple engineering tactics to obtain the last four of your card (avoid this by calling paypal and asking the agent to add a note to your account to not release any details via phone)

- I called godaddy and told them I had lost the card but I remembered the last four, the agent then allowed me to try a range of numbers (00-09 in your case) I have not found a way to heighten godaddy account security, however if you’d like me to recommend a more secure registrar i recommend: NameCheap or eNom (not network solutions but

Understandably, Hiroshima had harsh words for the companies involved. “Stupid companies may give out your personal information (like part of your credit card number) to the wrong person.” We saw a similar mistake in 2012, when Wired Senior Writer Mat Honan temporarily had his entire digital life destroyed by hackers who wanted his Twitter handle: @mat (another fascinating read if you haven’t read already).

Since Hiroshima’s victimization went viral earlier this week, Paypal has come out and said no personal information was given out. GoDaddy, however, accepted some responsibility. Its chief information security officer (CISO) said the hacker already had in possession a large amount of Hiroshima’s personal information but did note, “We are making necessary changes to employee training to ensure we continue to provide industry-leading security to our customers and stay ahead of evolving hacker techniques.”

Now, I’m not writing this post to excoriate GoDaddy or Paypal or any other specific business. There are excellent lessons to be learned from the @N and @mat incidents for Internet users—as they both readily admit—but there is a powerful message for business as well.

As a consumer, whether I’m making an online purchase, downloading a service or paying a bill, a smooth user experience goes a long way. But making access to user accounts and purchases easier can also open the door for identity thieves. I’ve personally been a victim in two identity theft cases, and let me assure you, I have not used the services that were involved since, and I never plan to.

A colleague recently told me about a negative experience he had when trying to pay an online bill under his wife’s name, even though they shared the account. It was a service he has used and enjoyed for years, but the experience of having to authenticate, then create a new account for himself, along with new security questions and a password, left a bitter taste in his mouth.

So businesses must walk a fine line: Create a seamless user experience without opening up gaping security (and therefore privacy) holes. As was evidenced by the solution devised by GoDaddy’s CISO, employee training is a must. There will always be risk associated with human error, but better-prepared employees are much less likely to open gaping holes in your defenses.

Perhaps today’s news about the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is instructive as well. If we are to believe, at least in part, that the former TSA employee is telling the truth, procedural logic and employee morale would seem to go a long way in preventing privacy harm. Will confiscating nail clippers from the very pilot of the plane that’s about to take off prevent a terrorist attack? Having employees implement what sometimes seems arbitrary security measures only angers customers, prompts negative headlines and brings down employee morale. And with morale low, privacy violations seem to run rampant. The very security measure implemented by the TSA—the body scanners—serves as a perfect privacy-violating metaphor:

“Dear America, I Saw You Naked: And yes, we were laughing.”

The TSA seems to have the opposite problem as GoDaddy. One’s security protocols are thorny, invasive and often irritating, while the other’s is, perhaps, too smooth, lax and unsecure. Neither seems to have the security/usability knobs tuned quite right, and both are producing unhappy users.

Seen through the lens of risk management, privacy controls and customer service would seem to be at odds with each other. As you dial up the security and privacy controls, you increase the risk of dissatisfied customers and lost business. Conversely, if you dial down the controls, you increase the risk of a privacy breach, which, of course, leads to dissatisfied customers.

What’s the answer? Perhaps it’s our old friend transparency. If customers know why the controls are in place, and the logic behind them seems reasonable, they’re unlikely to be dissatisfied with the extra nuisance. You’re doing it, after all, for their benefit.

Because if the best explanation you can give for your security and privacy controls amounts to “we think your grandmother might have a bomb in her underwear,” or (true story) “we want to make sure you can use your account without your wife knowing about it,” well, you probably need to rethink your privacy and security controls. They’re not tuned quite right.

photo credit: Little Baby Zorak via photopin cc


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