Thursday, June 28, 2007

Facebook Cares More About Privacy Than Security

Kudos to Facebook. It looks like they fixed the privacy flaw within hours of Ryan Singel's Wired News story hitting the presses. By the time I woke up this morning, Brandee Barker, Facebook's Director of Corporate Communications had left a comment in my previous blog post to let me know that Facebook's engineers had "updated the advanced search function so that profile information that has been made private by a user, such as gender, religion, and sexual orientation, will not return a result."

Facebook's head privacy engineer, Nico Vera, seems to reside in some sort of Cheney-ish undisclosed location: He's not listed in the corporate phone directory, has instructed Facebook's receptionist to not accept outside calls, and did not reply to my intra-Facebook email.

Luckily - Facebook's PR people are a bit more responsive. It's amazing what a few calls from journalists, and a Boing Boing blog post can do to motivate a company to act quickly.

I tried a few sample searches, and can confirm that Facebook has indeed fixed the bug. My days of searching for private profiles of Facebook users under the age of 21 who list beer or marijuana as one of their interests is over. It's a shame too, as it made for a great "be careful with your information online" example when I lecture undergrads.

While Facebook offers a fantastic level of privacy controls for users, in this case, they clearly erred. Many users had gone to the effort to make their profiles private - and as such, Facebook should have assumed that they would also not wish for their profile information to be data mined through a number of iterative searches. Opt-out privacy is not the way to go - especially for users who have already communicated their intent to have their data be restricted to a small group of friends.

Facebook's engineers fixed the problem within 36 hours of the initial blog post going live, and within a business day of the blog post being linked to from Boing Boing. This rapid response is fantastic, and the Facebook team should be proud of the way they demonstrated their commitment to protecting users' private information.

Contrast this, however, to the Firefox extension vulnerability I made public one month ago. I first notified the Facebook team of the flaw in their Facebook Toolbar product over 2 months ago, on April 21, while the story hit the news a month later on May 30th.

As of this morning, it looks like Facebook has still not fixed their toolbar - such that it continues to seek and download updates from an unauthenticated and insecure server ( Google and Yahoo who fixed the same problem in their products within a few days.

Yes - being able to quickly and effortlessly find out someones sexuality, religion and drug of choice (when they believe that their profile is private) is a major problem. It's far more serious than the chance that someone in an Internet cafe will take over your laptop - which is probably why Facebook rushed to fix the privacy problem so quickly. However, the security flaw in the Facebook toolbar remains an unresolved issue, and there is simply no excuse for them to wait two months to fix this vulnerability.


Anonymous said...

Good to see Facebook fixed the privacy issue... but
I just came across this

Jordan said...

Especially given how trivial it is for them to fix the flaw! I mean, how hard is it to buy an ssl cert these days?