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Fans of Sarah Palin hijack Twitter feed of Carnegie company

| Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Carnegie company pulled off a technological feat when it posted 24,199 of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's gubernatorial e-mails online just 12 hours after the state released paper copies of the messages.

But less than 48 hours later, Internet pranksters were able to use social media against the high-tech wizards of Crivella West Inc., when they posted a deluge of pro-Palin, anti-Obama rants under Crivella West's handle on Twitter.

"To say it was hacking would be giving more credit than due. It was more like spamming," said Art Crivella, Crivella West's CEO and co-founder, on Monday.

He said the problem originated when Crivella West set up a Twitter account specifically for comments on the e-mail release but neglected to select a necessary privacy setting. That left the door open for those posting to the Twitter site to use the company's handle.

"Twitter knew what we were talking about right away. ...There was no password intrusion. We just didn't have our tweets private," Crivella said.

He said the Palin e-mails have collected more than 5 million views since the company posted them late Friday at www.crivellawest.net. Crivella estimated MSNBC, which partnered on the effort with his company, has at least that many hits to the e-mails through its website.

That's probably what put Crivella West on the pranksters' radar in the first place, said Phil Laboon, CEO of Eyeflow Internet Marketing, a Pittsburgh firm that manages social media.

"They did something. They got some attention, and they became a target," Laboon said.

He said Eyeflow deals with such issues every week and recounted the tale of a Pittsburgh company whose Google local listing had been reset to direct inquiries to a gay escort site.

"It was up for a year-and-a-half before they found out about it. ...You have so much technology thrown at you. There is so much you need to learn. Right now, everyone thinks what they need is Facebook or Twitter. They set it up and leave and forget about it. They don't have the right privacy settings, and anyone can hack in," he said.

Crivella West, which specializes in complex litigation and investigation research, got involved in the Palin project last year when the state of Alaska estimated it would cost $15 million to respond to Freedom of Information requests seeking copies of e-mails from Palin's official gubernatorial account.

"We were interested in showcasing our abilities for the state of Alaska. So we wrote them a private e-mail and offered to do it for free. The state never got back to us, but the Anchorage newspaper ran a story about our offer. Then MSNBC contacted us," Crivella said.

Last week, Crivella and five of his employees flew to Alaska for the release of the documents, which were delivered in cardboard boxes.

"What I did was take the most advanced things we do in litigation and take them to investigative journalism. ... We took paper; we redigitized it and transmitted it to Pittsburgh. We had over 100 computers working on it and then sent it through very sophisticated systems of intelligence. We were able to distill all the salient features of who was there, who was talking to who, what was in play in Alaska.

"From the time the very first boxes were handed to somebody to the time it was launched to the Web, the first pages were up in an hour. Every page analyzed and digitized, and the entire system was available in 12 hours," Crivella said.

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