Hackers hijack the LDS Church News Twitter Account

LDS Church News revealed that hackers hijacked the Church News Twitter account last weekend. Twitter staffers took down the site because the infiltrators had gained total control over the feed.

Charlie Crane, director of interactive media for the Deseret News, said he realized Sunday night that the Church News account had been compromised. “We tried to get it back,” he said, but he soon realized that the hacker had even been able to change the password and lock him out. “I don’t know how they got the password,” Crane said. “I’m very skeptical (of Twitter) now.” He expressed concern for other Twitter accounts the Deseret News operates.

Crane said the hacker posted some anti-Mormon material on the site earlier this week. The Church News and Deseret News are owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through Deseret Management Corp. There’s no indication yet when the feed will be up again, but Twitter administrators said they would be contacting the Deseret News later today about restoring the Church News account.

Other Twitter accounts have been hacked into recently, including that of the New York Times and baseball coach Tony LaRussa. Unlike many online accounts, like those for Facebook, Twitter does not send a confirmation e-mail when a user changes a password, Crane said. We commented on this problem several months ago after someone had set up a Twitter account to impersonate President Thomas S. Monson. Twitter needs to come up with some solution to this problem or they may find themselves in a lawsuit or alienating their users.

I want everyone to sleep well tonight, the Mormon Lawyers Twitter account has not been hijacked.

President Monson on Twitter. Or not.

As some of you may have noticed, we recently started using a Twitter account to let people know when we post new stuff or when new events come up. There is apparently a small but growing segment of LDS Twitter users, and we thought it might be useful to some people. There are a few Mormon-themed organizations that have Twitter accounts, one of which is the LDS news site Mormon Times.
This morning the Mormon Times Twitter account tweeted (what a stupid verb!) about a user who had set up an account purporting to be President Thomas S. Monson, current leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This account was set up yesterday, but it’s not a new idea: I checked around and found a couple different Monson impersonators on Twitter, though the others don’t seem to be taking the act as far. After only a day the new Monson impersonator has over 150 followers, but not everyone is fooled. One user even pointed out that the Faux Monson misspelled his wife’s name.

Like everything else online, use of Twitter is governed by the Terms of Service, which include and Impersonation Policy. Interestingly, the Impersonation Policy makes specific provision for parody Twitter accounts, apparently recognizing the limitations imposed by cases such as Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, the landmark copyright case against 2 Live Crew‘s parody version of “Pretty Woman.” The Twitter Impersonation Policy pages states:

The standard for defining parody is, “would a reasonable person be aware that it’s a joke.” An account may be guilty of impersonation if it confuses or misleads others—accounts with the clear INTENT to confuse or mislead will be permanently suspended.

Under this standard, I think it’s pretty clear that Faux Monson is violating the Twitter Terms of service. The account currently has nothing ironic or joking about it — the user is acting as if he or she were Thomas Monson, claiming to be the official account. The page also carries a photograph of the real Thomas Monson and links to an LDS Church website about him.

The impersonation may also violate federal law under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Specifically, the impersonation may violate 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(2), which is an extremely broad provision that bars intentional unauthorized access or exceeding of access of any computer. Here, since the use violates the Twitter Terms of Service, it is potentially unauthorized (or exceeds authorization). This provision is has been held to apply to all computers connected to the Internet, including server-side systems. Even more dramatic, CFAA provides for significant damages or up to 10 years jail time, sometimes without even showing any evidence of harm caused by the violation.

Before you get all riled up, I don’t anticipate a lawsuit. That would be a waste of time and resources, and the LDS Church wouldn’t even bother. Some of the fake Monson Twitter accounts have been around for nearly a year, and I’m sure other social networking sites have similar impersonators. However, there is some danger of misunderstanding or miscommunication. The Office of the First Presidency could always keep tabs on the impostors, and request that they be terminated by the service provider if things get out of hand. Or better yet, perhaps people should not be quite so gullible and link up with false accounts.

Earlier this month Sander wrote about the LDS Church’s increased online presence, and how positive it can be. But the Faux Monson is an example of the potential down-sides of Internet involvement. A false Twitter account is relatively inconsequential, but I can imagine more serious scenarios. I think the benefits outweigh the occasional annoyances, but Church representatives will have to be aware that more issues like this will appear in the future.

The Church on YouTube

While not legal news, strictly speaking, it’s worth noting that the Church has started in recent months at least three YouTube channels, all of which are geared towards a general audience:

Mormon Messages and LDS Public Affairs, which consists of news and comments of a general nature; and, Mormon New Era Messages, which, like the magazine of the same name, emphasizes moral and spiritual teachings to a younger demographic.

These sites, coupled with media.lds.org (emphasis on issue-oriented news and comment), mormon.org (basic doctrinal information geared to non-members), and the original site at lds.org, can all be used to help answer questions about the Church, and in some cases, to address criticisms directed at the Church or its members regarding positions taken on contemporary or moral issues. –SJR