A Few Clarifications

Why bother highlighting privacy problems on Facebook?  Isn’t privacy just an illusion anyway? With the way Facebook currently operates, users should probably assume that advertisers, developers, and hackers can access all of the information they post. However, most users are not aware of this, and fully believe in the privacy controls Facebook provides. Facebook needs to address privacy problems to match user confidence or better educate users on how easily others can access their data.

Hasn’t Facebook patched the holes that allow access to profile data? Those behind FBHive.com should be commended for the privacy hole they uncovered, which Facebook did patch. However, the privacy problems mentioned here remain unpatched. SuperPoke has patched the specific hole used in my demonstration hack, but other applications are still vulnerable to an identical attack.

Aren’t you simply highlighting problems in Facebook applications? Isn’t Facebook itself more secure? Mark it down: A vulnerability in a Facebook application is a vulnerability in Facebook itself. Since all applications are granted access to a wealth of user information and can perform many actions that directly affect a user, application holes can be exploited to the point of differing little from actually hacking a user’s profile.

Are these hacks really that serious if they require a user to click a special link? Hacks that do not require user intervention are certainly more powerful. However, many security researchers will affirm that getting a user to click on a link is not that difficult. Also, many of these hacks can work invisibly on what appears to be an otherwise harmless page. Finally, applications have many viral channels available to them, and these can be exploited by an application attack or a rogue application to compromise more users.

Doesn’t Facebook prevent advertisers from accessing personally identifiable information? For advertisements served by Facebook itself, the site does prevent such access. Unfortunately, several advertising networks for Facebook applications, such as SocialCash, can and do access personally identifiable information for targeting their ads. While this appears to be a clear TOS violation, Facebook has not shown interest in addressing this particular problem.  Two ad networks were shut down recently, but apparently for deceptive ads and not for the user information they accessed.

Can Facebook enable third-party applications at all and still enforce user privacy? Security researchers may disagree on this particular question, but I do think it clear that Facebook could do far more to protect user privacy. The Facebook Platform currently ignores important security techniques that have led to problems such as my recent application hacks. For example, allowing every application full access to user information contributes to making the hacks so serious.

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