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Posts Tagged ‘data

Facebook is no stranger to the complaints of privacy activists. First, it was the site’s News Feed feature back in 2006. Most recently, the company’s Beacon service drew widespread criticism. This blog post will outline yet another major privacy issue, in which Facebook recklessly exposes user data.

Facebook launched its widely popular application developer program back in May 2007. As of press time, there were more than 14,000 applications. Some, including most of the popular apps, are made by companies, while a few of the popular apps, and a significant number of the long tail of the less popular applications are made by individual developers.

But a new study suggests there may be a bigger problem with the applications. Many are given access to far more personal data than they need to in order to run, including data on users who never even signed up for the application. Not only does Facebook enable this, but it does little to warn users that it is even happening, and of the risk that a rogue application developer can pose.

Privacy problems for the user

In order to install an application, a Facebook user must first agree to “allow this application to…know who I am and access my information.” Users not willing to permit the application access to all kinds of data from their profile cannot install it onto their Facebook page.

Screenshot of adding an application

(Credit: Facebook)

What kind of information does Facebook give the application developer access to? Practically everything. According to the Application Terms of Service,

“Facebook may…provide developers access to…your name, your profile picture, your gender, your birthday, your hometown location…your current location…your political view, your activities, your interests…your relationship status, your dating interests, your relationship interests, your summer plans, your Facebook user network affiliations, your education history, your work history,…copies of photos in your Facebook Site photo albums…a list of user IDs mapped to your Facebook friends.”

The applications don’t actually run on Facebook’s servers, but on servers owned and operated by the application developers. Whenever a Facebook user’s profile is displayed, the application servers contact Facebook, request the user’s private data, process it, and send back whatever content will be displayed to the user. As part of its terms of service, Facebook makes the developers promise to throw away any data they received from Facebook after the application content has been sent back for display to the user.

Researchers blast Facebook

Some applications may make use of all this data, but as researchers from the University of Virginia have detailed in a recent report, Facebook provides applications with access to far more private user information than they need to function. Adrienne Felt, a student and lead researcher on the project, told me that of the top 150 applications they examined in October 2007, “8.7 percent didn’t need any information; 82 percent used public data (name, network, list of friends); and only 9.3 percent needed private information (e.g., birthday). Since all of the applications are given full access to private data, this means that 90.7 percent of applications are being given more privileges than they need.”

(Credit: Adrienne Felt, with permission.)

Felt condemned this practice, and said that it violated the the idea of least authority, an important security design principle that states that an actor should only be given the privileges needed to perform a job. In other words, she said, an application that doesn’t need private information shouldn’t be given any.

“Regardless of the click-through disclaimer that Facebook makes users accept, I don’t think people understand what’s happening to their data behind the scenes. If applications don’t appear to use private data–but then they all have this same standard click-through screen–how can users differentiate between applications that really need access to data and all the rest?”

More than your own data–selling out your friends

Facebook’s Web site and lengthy application terms of service curiously fail to mention something rather important. In addition to providing the application developer access to most of your private profile data, you also agree to allow the developer to see private data on all of your friends too.

Many Facebook users set their profiles to private, which stops anyone but their friends from seeing their profile details. This is a great privacy feature that can protect users from cyberstalkers and is completely gutted by the application system. To restate things–if you set your profile to private, and one of your friends adds an application, most of your profile information that is visible to your friend is also available to the application developer–even if you yourself have not installed the application.

The good news is that Facebook lets you configure the amount of your own private data that your friend’s applications can see. The bad news is that it’s hidden away, requiring several clicks through menus to find a page listing specific privacy settings (Privacy -> Applications -> Other Applications). Furthermore, the default values are extremely lax, such that a user who has yet to discover the preference page is essentially sharing her entire profile by default.

This friend data-sharing “feature,” and the ability to protect against it, isn’t mentioned anywhere else on Facebook’s site, nor are users informed about it when they install an application.

On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to briefly chat with Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer. During our conversation, he dismissed claims that Facebook does nothing to inform users that applications have access to data on user’s friends, stating that “we have made things very clear to users, and they understand it very well.” However, by press time, he had yet to send me a link to anywhere on the site where this information was “clearly” explained.

I also spoke with George Washington University Law professor and privacy expert Daniel Solove to get his thoughts on the issue. Regarding Facebook’s claims that it makes its privacy policy clear to users, he said that “they seem to be going on the assumption that if someone uses Facebook, they really have no privacy concerns.” Furthermore, “a kind of vague notice in a privacy policy that no one reads suddenly permits Facebook to do whatever they want with minimal to no privacy protections.”

As for actually getting user permission before using their data in new and creepy ways, Solove said that the company “seem to have a very cavalier attitude to their users consent.”

Rogue developers

Ok. So in order to give your friends virtual naughty gifts, play scrabble online, or see your daily horoscope, a user has to hand over all their private profile data to some unknown company or developer. No need to worry though, because Facebook has safeguards in place, right?

“Before providing any information to any Developer through the Facebook Platform, Facebook requires each Developer to enter into an agreement…which…strictly limits their collection, use, and storage of Facebook Site Information.” (Facebook application terms of service)

Ah, good. Facebook requires that each developer protect the privacy of the user information and requires that they not store a local copy. I’m sure Facebook enforces this vigorously, audits developers, and throws the book at anyone who violates this rule, right?

“[each application] has not been approved, endorsed, or reviewed in any manner by Facebook…we are not responsible for…the privacy practices or other policies of the Developer. YOU USE SUCH DEVELOPER APPLICATIONS AT YOUR OWN RISK.” (Facebook application terms of service)

I asked Facebook’s Kelly what his company is doing to ensure that application developers do not violate the rules by saving a copy of user data that passes through their servers. He cited “extensive security mechanisms operating behind the scenes,” although, he refused to expand on this, due to “security reasons.” He wasn’t too happy when I accused him of practicing security though obscurity, a concept widely mocked in security circles. He dismissed my charge as a mischaracterization.

Kelly claimed that his company “has a variety of techniques to determine if [developers are saving user data.]” As a PhD student in Information Security, I can quite confidently say that from a technical perspective, this is impossible. Simply put, once the data leaves Facebook’s servers, the company has no way of knowing what happens to it. Thus, giving Mr. Kelly the benefit of the doubt, I can only assume that Facebook has a team of trained psychics on staff who use their mysterious powers to ferret out rogue developers.

Who are the application developers

Kelly said that users can determine a developer’s trustworthiness by looking at their profile page, and that somehow, users can combine to form some kind of intelligent hive mind. “One of the factors is what applications your friends are installing. Untrusted applications don’t get added very often as the collective mind is choosing what is trusted in real time.” He further added that it is “up to your friends to make that determination in real time. If an application is going to give them some utility, they’ll know that the applications have to obey the rules.”

Call me a cynic–but I fail to see how thousands of 18-year-olds can collectively assess the data protection practices of some random developer in a foreign land. Remember, these are the same 18-year-olds who post photos of themselves passed out drunk on their public profile pages.

Would I trust the hive mind of Indiana University students to tell me which bar in town has the cheapest beer? Sure. But to expect them to evaluate a company’s privacy practices? No way.

A public outcry

Unfortunately, as alarming as this issue is to privacy activists, there is a good chance that it may fail to gain the attention of the millions of Facebook users necessary to actually force the company to fix its policies. While both the newsfeeds and Beacon scandals were “in your face,” most users have no way of knowing what, if any, data is being transmitted to application developers by Facebook, and thus are unlikely to be motivated to complain.

Furthermore, even users who are aware of the privacy risks of Facebook applications may still end up installing them. To not do so is to isolate yourself, to cut off communication channels, and in some cases, to cause insult your friends.

In what can only be a great example of life imitating art (see below), I asked security researcher Adrienne Felt which, if any, applications she used. She told me that in spite of the fact that she had spent significant time investigating the privacy risks, she still ended up installing an application because her friends wanted to send her some virtual Christmas presents. Not wanting to offend them, she put aside her privacy concerns, and installed the app. As she told me, due to the peer pressure, “I had a hard time saying no.”

The Joy Of Tech on Facebook
(Credit: Nitrozac and Snaggy, used with permission.)
reported on webware.com

Been using Facebook for long ….see how its grown into a giant and where’s the traffic comin from ….

Facebook

Quick Analysis: The hot talked company Facebook has the highest growth rate, and at Forrester we predict it to achieve the same number of registered users as MySpace in Q4 of 2008, or early 2009 given the current growth rates. The widget platform, which launched summer 2007 has had strong growth as more than 13,000 applications have been launched. Please don’t call this the MySpace killer as each of these sites serves a different demographic, with a different purpose, and different tools. Facebook is more of a ‘lifestyle’ play that allows members to connect to each other.

General Growth
* More than 60 million active users
* An average of 250,000 new registrations per day since Jan. 2007
* An average of 3% weekly growth since Jan. 2007
* Active users doubling every 6 months

User Demographics
* Over 55,000 regional, work-related, collegiate, and high school networks
* More than half of Facebook users are outside of college
* The fastest growing demographic is those 25 years old and older
* Maintain 85 percent market share of 4-year U.S. universities

User Engagement
* Sixth-most trafficked site in the United States (comScore)
* More than 65 billion page views per month
* More than half of active users return daily
* People spend an average of 20 minutes on the site daily (comScore)

Applications
* No. 1 photo sharing application on the Web (comScore)
* Photo application draws more than twice as much traffic as the next three sites combined (comScore)
* More than 14 million photos uploaded daily
* More than 6 million active user groups on the site

International Growth
* Canada has the most users outside of the United States, with more than 7 million active users
* The U.K. is the third largest country with more than 7 million active users
* Remaining top 10 countries in order of active users (outside of the U.S., Canada and UK): Australia, Turkey, Sweden, Norway, South Africa, France, Hong Kong

Platform
* Over 7,000 applications have been built on Facebook Platform
* 100 new applications added per day
* More than 80% of Facebook members have used at least one application built on Facebook Platform


MySpaceQuick Analysis: MySpace the largest Social Network in North America maintains a dominant position as media site, primarily aimed at youth, giving them the opportunity to relate to brands and bands, as well as self-express. This site will continue to do with advertisers and marketers. Expect to see more TV and video networks to integrate and work with MySpace, who has the new generation that Generation X was to MTV.

Metrics
· MySpace has more than 110 million monthly active users
around the globe
· We are the country’s trafficked site on the Internet
· 85% of MySpace users are of voting age (18 or older)
· 1 in 4 Americans is on MySpace, in the UK it’s as common to
have a MySpace as it is to own a dog

·On average 300,000 new people sign up to MySpace every day,
this month we broke a record and had 4.5 billion page views to the
site in one day.

We are localized and translated in more than 20 international
territories: U.S., UK, Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy,
Spain, Mexico, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, MySpace en
Espanol, Latin America, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and
Finland.

·MySpace is one of the fastest growing websites of all time,
we have:
·100 Billion rows of data
·14 Billion comments on the site
·20 Billion mails on the site total
·50 Million mails per day (more than Yahoo, Hotmail,
or Google)
·10 Billion friend relationships
·1.5 Billion images
·8 Million images being uploaded per day
·60,000 new videos being upload to MySpaceTV each day
·More than 8 million artists and bands on MySpace Music
Acts including Lily Allen, Sean Kingston, Arctic
Monkeys, Dane Cook discovered on the site by users

Company Details
·Launched in January 2004
·Acquired by Fox Interactive Media in October 2005
·Los Angeles-based
·Founded by Chris DeWolfe, CEO and Tom Anderson, President