Find the McDonald's/Burger King hack funny? Just imagine full-blown corporate cyberwar

Summary:At the time, I thought what happened to Burger King on Twitter yesterday was pretty funny. But do we need to think about what behavior we're condoning?

Last weekend I took a DNA sample using using the 23andMe service. I went onto a website, gave them my credit card details, and a test kit turned up a couple of days later. I spat in the tube (sorry!), put it on a plane (well, DHL did that for me) and soon they'll put it in a machine and sequence my genome.

Where that gets all crazy future sci-fi is that once that's done I can download a copy of my genome, on a small handheld computer, pretty much wherever on the planet I am. I could be in line to get a coffee on the way to work. And if I want to understand something more, I can tap into essentially the totality of human knowledge to help me understand what I'm actually seeing. Finally, this all comes at a cost that is essentially free.

When I was a kid I used to read a lot of sci-fi. All of that could have been lifted from the sort of cyberpunk books I used to read 20 years ago.

And that got me to thinking about the McDonald's/Burger King hack that happened yesterday. Although we know that particular hack was the result of a hacker/some hackers exploiting some weakness, it shows the ability for individuals to co-opt a marketing channel, which is something that would be very hard to do with "traditional" marketing. If McDonald's rented a billboard, it would be hard in real life to corrupt that arrangement so that the placed advert was actually for Burger King.

But in a digital world, that becomes much easier. If McDonald's rented digital billboard, hackers could easily do what they did yesterday with Twitter -- i.e. exploit some weakness to replace the McDonald's advert with a Burger King advert. I've been in McDonald's where all the menus were electronic display panels -- why not hack into those and replace those with messages about where the nearest Burger King is?

If you were writing a cyberpunk novel, rather than having some ad hoc collective of hackers doing it "for the lulz", you'd possibly have the marketing team at Burger King employing freelance hackers to corrupt McDonald's advertising intentionally for their own gain. (Lawyers -- please relax at this point! I'm not suggesting that McDonald's or Burger King, or any of your clients would actually do this, I'm just playing with an idea that's 100% science fiction.)

That idea could have been lifted straight out of the opening chapters of Snow Crash.


This idea seems ridiculous, but could we could end up in a situation where corporate executives are intentionally acting outside of legality and morality in a sort of "war" with competitors to take advantage of the each others advertising spend and spin it to their own advantage? I present two points:

Firstly, sometimes corporate executives act outside of legal and generally accepted moral boundaries. (Again, lawyers! I'm not suggesting that your clients would do this.)

Secondly, it appeared to me that everyone thought that what happened to Burger King yesterday was amusing. I must admit, I thought it was funny -- it's part of basic human psychology to get an emotional buzz out of schadenfreude, but this morning I'm wondering whether it actually was funny.

I did a very quick, non-scientific analysis of Twitter sentiment about the hack this morning. I looked up synonyms for "funny", and synonyms for "bad", and used to find tweets that referenced both sets. I didn't find one example of people lamenting what had happened to Burger King. Every tweet that I read was full-on schadenfreude.

Some of this is down to the fact that Twitter is naturally a medium that skews towards humour. The likely reason for this is that humour acts in our society as a type of "social grease". If you're out and about with a group of people that you know well, a "good night" is one where you're laughing, joking and teasing throughout. Humour is part of what we use to get to know each other. Twitter's ultra-short burst message design makes humour more important. A quick and witty tweet that conveys humour is more likely to be picked up and propagated in the network than one that is negative. Here's one that I particularly liked from yesterday, because of it's knowing nod towards computer security:

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 14.33.19
You have to admit that this is pretty funny.


OK, but is what happened to Burger King actually funny, or are we just not thinking about what we're doing? Most human social behaviour has been under development and refinement for hundreds of years. A friend of mine said to me recently "we're taught to behave everywhere except the internet, which is now everywhere". Were we all correct to give oxygen to the hacker/hackers who did this? (For example, I retweeted the tweet I've reproduced above yesterday without thinking about. I read it, thought it was clever and funny, and hit "retweet".)

Not wishing to be a killjoy -- I present these a "devil's advocate" argument purely as a disinterested discussion point, but providing feedback to those involved that what they did as funny is rather a "win" for whoever did it. If we all condemned what happened and didn't play the game, it would make a repeat performance less likely. We might also want to reflect that it could have been our spouse working in Burger King's marketing department yesterday desperately trying to find some way of contacting Twitter to get the account knocked offline. (An activity that's essentially impossible unless you happen to personally know someone senior within Twitter.) And someone could well have lost their job. Regardless of what happened, that's a rubbish day.

Another point is that it actually worked. The Burger King account managed to grab an additional 25,000 followers in the couple of hours the hack was active. At the time of writing, it was up about another 25,000. If someone targeted you with doubling your Twitter followers from 60,000 to 120,000-odd, if a hacker told you he/she had a plan, it'd be a little bumpy but that it could be done in a day if you had a little cash -- well, how's your moral compass?

(Again, lawyers! I'm not suggesting this happened. You guys!)

Is it actually that much of a leap to imagine a situation here in the not too distant future, we're quite comfortable with two megarich, megalarge, international companies commissioning hackers to try and co-opt each others advertising spends? (Perhaps we'd call them "red hat/blue hat" hackers?) If we're sitting here and finding the lulz in what happened yesterday, does it make that situation more or less likely in the long term?

Remember that when I was born, and most likely when you were born, airlines were made of aluminium panels riveted together and the fax machine had not been invented. Now we can make airliners out of impossible composite materials and hold them together with glue, and a man who lives in space can send messages instantly to half a million people with no effort at all.

We have a bit of a knack for making science fiction ideas very factual. Perhaps it's time to think about what we actually want?

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Security


Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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