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Understanding and Defending Against Social Media Threats

In assessing the threats posed by social media apps, it is first important to understand these apps are inherently neutral - just like every other tool or weapon.

An actor can use a social media app to attack or defend a person or organisation, just as a soldier can wield a sword to either attack or parry. As with any weapon, however, one must understand the offensive capabilities of a weapon, and its limitations, before one can design a way to defend against it.

In terms of social media, that means that anyone seeking to understand the threats posed by those using the applications must first become familiar with what the applications are and how they work. Sadly, some people who are attempting to direct efforts to monitor social media have never used the platforms themselves. Social media apps (and the deep and dark web, for that matter) remain a mystery to many people, and this leaves them vulnerable to “snake oil” salesmen who will make impossible claims while selling social media monitoring solutions or information removal services.

Don't get me wrong; there are some excellent tools available for social media monitoring, but they all have limitations and none of them is a “silver bullet” that can serve all functions across all platforms. Efforts to de-platform extremists from popular social media apps such as Twitter and their subsequent migration to lesser-known apps such as Parler and Gab, also complicates monitoring efforts. Be skeptical of anyone who promises to monitor or remove everything.

An Expanding Attack Surface

The rapid expansion of social media apps has combined with the wide adoption of the internet to dramatically expanded the attack surface, or the physical and virtual points where an organisation or individual is vulnerable to either a cyber or physical attack.

We have seen cyber criminals and state-sponsored advanced persistent threats conduct their entire cyber attack cycle through social media, using tools such as virtual honey traps or cat-fishing. They can also crack the passwords of personal or organisational social media accounts and use the contents of the accounts against their owners. Attackers have also used information gleaned from social media posts against people to assist in spear phishing attacks, or even to help facilitate physical attacks, such as the Oct. 2016 armed robbery of Kim Kardashian West who had some ten million dollars’ worth of jewellery stolen by armed criminals dressed as police officers who invaded her suite in an exclusive Paris hotel.

The attack surface has also increased considerably to include smartphones, watches, tablets, computers, cars, smart speakers and other devices. The emergence of new social media apps also creates more vulnerabilities and as a result, it has become progressively more difficult to protect all these points of vulnerability.

Also Expanding Early Warning

But the rapid expansion of vulnerable information can also prove useful for defensive purposes. By monitoring social media, companies and organisations can become aware of people who make threats or otherwise pose a physical or reputational threat. This provides an opportunity to alert law enforcement, security personnel and the impacted employees. And these potential threats don't just come from an external source. By monitoring social media, organisations can become aware of their own employees who make threats or provide clues that they are becoming mentally unstable and could pose a threat.

Other threats to business continuity, safety and reputation such as activist protests are also frequently organised on social media apps. Because of this, identifying and monitoring the social media accounts of key individuals and organisations can often provide a great deal of actionable intelligence. Social media monitoring tools are helpful in this defensive role, because they can comb through massive amounts of data and highlight items of interest for analysts to review. It is important to note, however, that these tools ultimately require a human to direct them to the most relevant sources, sort through the results they provide, and place the information the tools yield into proper context.

Going back to my weapon analogy, even a fine sword will be ineffective in the hand of an untrained person. The same is true for social monitoring tools; even a good tool can only ever be as effective as the analysts using them.

Social media has become an integral part of the daily lives of many people across the globe. I've seen impoverished people in small villages in Africa and Latin America who do not have running water in their homes, but who do have smartphones and who use social media applications on a daily basis. Social media applications are only going to become more pervasive, and those seeking to protect their organisations and the people within them against criminal, physical or reputational threats must understand social media apps and learn how to properly use social media monitoring -- or find a partner who can provide this capability.

Author: Scott Stewart, Vice-President of TorchStone Global

About TorchStone Global

TorchStone Global is a premier global risk mitigation and security firm, providing customised solutions to address each client’s needs across the entire spectrum of security and deliver peace of mind and confidence in an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world.

Since their founding, TorchStone Global have protected clients and their assets across six continents. More than 100 families including 10% of the Forbes 400 have entrusted their safety to TorchStone Global.

TorchStone Global has earned a reputation as a best-in-class risk consultancy company offering pragmatic and cost-effective problem solving and risk mitigation solutions for the world’s most well-known companies, high-profile families and popular sporting events in more than 70 countries across six continents. TorchStone Global differentiate themselves within a fragmented and evolving security industry by combining decades of cumulative, in-house private, public and social sector experience in risk analysis, protection, intelligence, investigations, and psychology with cutting edge technology solutions and a global network of proven risk consultants and professions.