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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

The tweeter who loved me

Late Sunday night, a Twitter user with nearly 23,000 tweets suddenly vanished, more or less removing her entire record from the Internet. And just as suddenly, a vocal subset of the Twitteratti that works in national security was up in arms about what it might all mean.

@PrimorisEra, who identified herself a young, attractive woman with a keen interest in missile technology and national security strategy, shut down her Twitter account on Sunday night. Her departure has subsequently spurred many speculative stories rife with intrigue, opaque identities and questions about the security of information on the Internet.

It all started last Friday, when @FrostinaDC, who identifies herself as a contractor for the Department of Defense, speculated that @PrimorisEra was a “honeypot.” (Several of the Twitter users who followed @PrimorisEra account requested that their real names not be referenced directly in the course of telling this story.) A honeypot, sometimes called a honeytrap, is an intelligence agent or organization that uses seduction or sexual blackmail to recruit someone to provide classified information (see Wikipedia for a more detailed summary).

More than a few Twitter users who work in national security panicked upon hearing the accusation lodged against @PrimorisEra. According to @AllThingsHLS, who identifies himself as a retired intelligence analyst, @PrimorisEra allegedly requested sensitive information using Twitter’s Direct Messaging, or DM, service. By posing as a savvy junior analyst (or, when she contacted me several months ago, a graduate student seeking sources for a paper), @PrimorisEra alledgedly tried to persuade several young men on Twitter (and Facebook, though details are even sketchier there) to divulge sensitive information for more than two years.

On Monday night, Marc Ambinder of The National Journal tweeted that @Primorisera categorically denied all allegations that she requested classified information from her Twitter network in an email response, in which she also referenced a pending investigation by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Lest some readers forget, this wouldn’t be the first time the DoD panicked about apocryphal online identities. In December 2009, Thomas Ryan, a New York-based hacker, created an online persona, “Robin Sage,” who operated under the guise of — you got it — a young, attractive woman. By creating fake profiles for Sage on Facebook, LinkedIn and other sites, Ryan was able to insinuate himself into networks of intelligence analysts, contractors, defense officials and soldiers. Upon discovering the ruse, the Pentagon was forced to address the potential hazards of “friending” strangers online. (It might sound like basic common sense, but apparently even national security analysts need reminders about social networking best practices).

While it still remains unclear if there was an actual security breach, several Twitter users in my network who are involved in national security matters immediately protected their accounts and stopped responding to queries, while they tried to figure out how much – if any — information might have been leaked to @PrimorisEra by other Twitter users. Information is limited at this point as few are willing to speak about it — on or off the record.

What really concerns me is how the U.S. intelligence community chooses to respond to this incident. It’s worth pausing to note the Pentagon’s fraught history with social media. In 2009, they created an Office of Social Media with the intent of exploring social networking sites; earlier this year, they abruptly shut this office down. The current rules governing use of sites like Twitter and Facebook, which are fairly open compared to years past, were extended in March. It’s unclear if this incident will affect either the January 2012 renewal of social media guidelines or spark an early reconsideration.

My hope is that, going forward, employee access to Twitter remains unrestricted.  After all, Twitter is only a tool, and tools, by definition, are inherently neutral. Given the first few tentative steps the defense and intelligence communities had made to embracing social media it would be a real shame if they respond by blocking access, rather than reprimanding those who violated the rules. Twitter is far too valuable a tool for information gathering to be cut out of the intelligence process. The government, however, has a predictable (and not particularly forward thinking) track record when it comes to responding to these types of situations. If they do cut off Twitter in the wake of this incident, we will all be worse off.