Always New Mistakes

November 15, 2007

Are social networks putting us in danger?

Filed under: Security — Tags: , , , , — Alex Barrera @ 2:51 pm

Today I would like to talk about an issue I’ve been ranting lately. Are social networks putting our privatePirate Flag and personal information in danger? I’ve been working for some time in the information security industry and I’ve seen many crazy things. Due to the recent popularity of social networks, we are beginning to see a shift on which information gets stolen. At first the bad guys targeted big company servers, nowadays exploiting remote bugs on current operative systems is getting much harder (thanks to things like ASLR, Non exec stacks, grsec, etc.). That’s why the bad guys are focusing on hacking browsers and their web applications. Each day we spend more and more time playing, working and using web applications, gradually incrementing the time we are exposed to them. Given the fact that the use of social networks is expanding at an incredible rate and that part of the experience consists in giving away our personal and private data, we have a ticking bomb on our hands.

So, we have motivation, we have interesting information to steal and best of all, we have a huge community of web developers who lack the security knowledge to code secure and reliable web applications. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the developers don’t care. First of all, they do care, but the don’t know what to look for, they don’t know how an exploit works and of course, the don’t have time to deal with it. It’s much more important to deal with scalability issues or with SEO strategies. The problem is that, due to the growing popularity of the social networks and things like Facebook apps or Open Social, these issues are acquiring an important weight. But you might think, why should I care? It’s not as if I’m exposing my credit card number, isn’t it? False, you are exposing a wealth of information much more important. We are who we are, our hobbies, our sports, our political views, our friends, etc. If someone can steal that information, we could be easily impersonated at all levels. From being victims of online scams, telephone scams, bank scams, to being denied a job due to some piece of information floating around. It can even cost you business deals or strategic partners.

Now the facts. It took theharmonyguy 45 minutes to find a way to hack the RockYou OpenSocial application emote. It took him 20 minutes to hack the iLike application on Ning. Today theharmonyguy announced that the Compare People application on Facebook leaks private information some information to the adSense network. Well, that is some scary stuff. Not only are we going to be data mined by Facebook, but we are also being targeted by adSense at the same time. Last, but not least, we have the great MySpace hack of Alicia Keys profile. The exploit was rather trivial, not highly sophisticated, but quite easy to avoid in most cases. Worst of all is that most social networks aren’t listening to security experts that are point out other hacks, scams or flaws in their systems. On the other side, it’s true that most application developers for social networks platforms are fast responders when a security flaw is found on their products. Why the actual social network cares less is beyond my understanding.

I don’t want to claim someone can eradicate all security bugs. They will always exists, for as long as we are humans. What I want to point out is that most of the bugs come from lazy developments. Right now, there is much more at stake than it was two years ago, so guys, pull out your security hats and lets hack some decent code, for the sake of all the “social networkers”.

UPDATE: As you can see, the guys from Compare People took a fast step and responded promtely to this issue. You can see their comments below. As far as I know, Facebook applications shouldn’t be using some of a user’s profile to feed adSense, or at least they should alert you about it. I hope this gets straight pretty soon. Thanks again to naval ravikant for the comments and the fast response.

UPDATE2: Venturebeat has a statement from a Google spokesman: “We recently allowed some application partners to send us additional keywords to improve ad performance. A limited number of the keywords sent to Google did not comply with the developer’s agreement with Facebook. When we realized this conflict, we asked the partners to discontinue sending those keywords. We are no longer using those keywords. No personally identifiable information was exchanged between Google and the application developers“. They do have a good point, is it going to take a blogger whistleblower to identify security breaches? Is it going to be like this with OpenSocial? Let’s hope no. At least they’ve answered pretty fast to the issue.



  1. Alex,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. On the Google adsense issue, some apps use keywords to retarget Adsense properly. Google doesnt store the data and it’s not personally identifiable. However, Compare People is disabling this targeting until Google and Facebook can clarify.

    Comment by naval ravikant — November 15, 2007 @ 10:18 pm

  2. Hi Naval Ravikant,
    You are right, I just read your comments on theharmonyguy’s blog. I should have updated the post. Although he does has a good point about the information being passed to 3rd parties without alerting the user. I understand that’s why Compare People has disabled the feature until they get it straight. Thank you for getting this right and specially for disabling the feature temporarily. I hope Facebook clears their TOS and speaks about this issue.

    Comment by alexbarrera — November 15, 2007 @ 11:38 pm

  3. […] Since we are living in a world where almost half the nation has a certain social network, employers have now mad accounts and created ways to check certain peoples social network accounts.  This is why it is very important that people should think before they put anything on the web.  “More than 1,700 public employees have been sacked or disciplined for internet or email misuse in the past three years.” ( […]

    Pingback by Milellam727’s Weblog — December 3, 2007 @ 1:49 am

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