Ed Miliband becomes target of hackers bent on embarrassing politicians

'I've been having better sex and longer with this here' 'Ed Miliband', Friday morning / 'Oh dear, I've fallen victim to Twitter's latest scam' Ed Miliband, two hours later

It was supposed to be the "cool" way for MPs to reconnect with the people, a way to persuade a sceptical public that they were "down with the kids" and keen to embrace the digital age.

But in the past month, more and more bewildered politicians have found that using the micro-blogging website Twitter can lead to embarrassment.

Yesterday, Ed Miliband became the latest victim of a "Twitterjacking" scam which has caught out a series of politicians including the Leader of the House of Commons, Harriet Harman.

Logging in to their Twitter accounts over breakfast, the Energy Secretary's 6,664 followers were greeted with an enthusiastic message apparently sent from his computer, the content of which was enough to make them splutter into their cornflakes.

Alongside a picture of a smiling Mr Miliband, the message read: "Hhey [sic], i've been having better sex and longer with this here," followed by a link to a website. The embarrassed minister moved quickly to reassure his followers, admitting: "Oh dear it seems like I've fallen victim to Twitter's latest 'phishing' scam."

In a sign of how quickly the problem can spread, only a few hours later the MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, Willie Rennie, had sent an identical message to more than 4,000 of his followers, including local volunteers and parents. "I've had lots of reaction and they say no publicity is bad publicity, but it's been a bit embarrassing," he told STV News.

On Thursday, the Glasgow South MP, Tom Harris, wrote a blog entry in which he joked about a sexual proposition he had received from The Independent on Sunday's political columnist John Rentoul as part of the scam – only to fall prey to it himself shortly afterwards. His Twitter entry read: "Tom Harris MP. Hot, horny, 24-year-old Independent journalist looking for good time..."

Harriet Harman told MPs on Thursday that her account had sent a bogus message to the shadow Prisons minister, Alan Duncan. She was responding to a question from the Labour MP Janet Anderson, who urged the Government to look into a website which she said had set up false Twitter accounts in the names of all North-west MPs.

The site, which is called The Year of Collaboration, describes itself as being run by "a collective of techies in the North-west who build things on the internet". It has set up "holding" profiles in the name of MPs who are not already using Twitter in the hope of persuading them to join.

A statement on the site says: "If you're an MP with a holding Twitter account, we'd be very happy to hand over the 'keys' – please email us from your House of Commons email account, and ... we'll send you the username and password for the account." Ms Harman said she would tell ministers to investigate.

Because Twitter functions as a social network – most users are linked to hundreds of others, who are linked to hundreds more – the messages can spread rapidly from politicians to lobby journalists and others in the media with whom they communicate.

In one instance, the news editor of a national newspaper was sent a private message from the Twitter account of the media commentator Roy Greenslade. The message appeared to be an honest attempt to confirm the authenticity of his account, reading simply: "This you?"

Another less subtle example, sent from the account of a journalist at The Guardian newspaper, read: "hi, i'm 24/female/horny...i have to get off here but message me on my windows live messenger name". An identical message was sent by several journalists in the parliamentary lobby, to the amusement of their friends and colleagues.

The attacks usually come in the form of private messages with a short greeting and a link to a cloned version of the Twitter website, which asks the user to enter their username and password. Once this is done, the hackers have full access to the person's account and can use it to send out messages – which can be read by thousands of the victim's followers.

Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at security firm Sophos, said: "With an election coming up, [MPs] want to appear down with the kids and use new technology to reach out to people more effectively. But they need to go back to the classroom to learn about basic computer security. Too many of them are being a little bit lackadaisical."

Yesterday, Gordon Brown's spokesman said security checks were being carried out on the 10 Downing Street Twitter account as well as that of the Prime Minister's wife.

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