When it comes to privacy and security issues on social networks, “the sites most likely to suffer from issues are the most popular ones,” Graham Cluley, Chief Technology Officer at UK tech security firm Sophos says. But security issues and privacy issues are entirely two different beasts. A security issue occurs when a hacker gains unauthorized access to a site’s protected coding or written language. Privacy issues, those involving the unwarranted access of private information, don’t necessarily have to involve security breaches. Someone can gain access to confidential information by simply watching you type your password. But both types of breaches are often intertwined on social networks, especially since anyone who breaches a site’s security network opens the door to easy access to private information belonging to any user. But the potential harm to an individual user really boils down to how much a user engages in a social networking site, as well as the amount of information they’re willing to share. In other words, the Facebook user with 900 friends and 60 group memberships is a lot more likely to be harmed by a breach than someone who barely uses the site.
Security lapses on social networks don’t necessarily involve the exploitation of a user’s private information. Take, for example, the infamous “Samy” MySpace XSS worm that effectively shut the site down for a few days in October 2005. The “Samy” virus (named after the virus’ creator) was fairly harmless, and the malware snarkily added the words “Samy Is My Hero” to the top of every affected user’s MySpace profile page. A colossal inconvenience, naturally, but nobody’s identity was stolen and no private information was leaked. In the end, the problem galvanized the MySpace team to roll up their sleeves and seriously tighten the site’s security. Result: no major break-ins since. Unfortunately, these kinds of breaches, purely for sport in “Samy’s” case, are rare.
The reason social network security and privacy lapses exist results simply from the astronomical amounts of information the sites process each and every day that end up making it that much easier to exploit a single flaw in the system. Features that invite user participation — messages, invitations, photos, open platform applications, etc. — are often the avenues used to gain access to private information, especially in the case of Facebook. Adrienne Felt, a Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley, made small headlines last year when she exposed a potentially devastating hole in the framework of Facebook’s third-party application programming interface (API) which allows for easy theft of private information. Felt and her co-researchers found that third-party platform applications for Facebook gave developers access to far more information (addresses, pictures, interests, etc.) than needed to run the app.
This potential privacy breach is actually built into the systematic framework of Facebook, and unfortunately the flaw renders the system almost indefensible. “The question for social networks is resolving the difference between mistakes in implementation and what the design of the application platform is intended to allow,” David Evans, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia, says. There’s also the question of whom we should hold responsible for the over-sharing of user data? That resolution isn’t likely to come anytime soon, says Evans, because a new, more regulated API would require Facebook “to break a lot of applications, and a lot of companies are trying to make money off applications now.” Felt agrees, noting that now “there are marketing businesses built on top of the idea that third parties can get access to data on Facebook.”
The problems plaguing social network security and privacy issues, for now, can only be resolved if users take a more careful approach to what they share and how much. With the growth of social networks, it’s becoming harder to effectively monitor and protect site users and their activity because the tasks of security programmers becomes increasingly spread out. Imagine if a prison whose inmate count jumped from a few dozen to 250 million in less than five years only employed 300 guards (in the case of MySpace). In response to the potential threats that users are expose to, most of the major networks now enable users to set privacy controls for who has the ability to view their information. But, considering the application loophole in Facebook, increased privacy settings don’t always guarantee privacy. But even when the flawed API was publicly exposed, “Facebook changed the wording of the user agreement a little bit, but nothing technically to solve the problem,” says Evans. That means if a nefarious application developer wanted to sell the personal info of people who used his app to advertising companies, he or she could.
Yet users still post tons of personal data on social networks without batting an eye. It’s only natural. Anonymity and the fact that you’re communicating with a machine instead of an actual person (or people in the case of social networking) makes sharing a lot easier. “People should just exercise common sense online, but the problem with common sense is that it’s not very common. If you wouldn’t invite these people into your house to see your cat, you certainly wouldn’t let them see pictures from holiday,” says Cluley.
In the end, the only tried and true solution to social network privacy and security issues is to limit your presence altogether. Don’t post anything you wouldn’t mind telling a complete stranger, because in reality that’s the potential for access. Be careful who you add as a “friend,” because there’s simply no way of verifying a user’s actual identity online. Cluley compares it to a rep from your company’s IT department calling to ask for your login password — “Most people will give it over” with no proof of the IT rep actually existing. The caller might be your IT rep, or she might not. “This kind of scam happens all the time,” says Cluley. Friends on social networks should know that real friends should know personal information already, negating the need to post it online.
Will there ever be a security breach-free social network? Probably not. “Any complex system has vulnerabilities in it. It’s just the nature of building something above a certain level of complexity,” says Professor Evans. According to Felt, the best idea is a completely private social network. “It simply requires that there’s no gossip in the circle, by which I mean one person who sets their privacy settings so low that third parties can use them to get to their friends.”
“Social networks are great fun, and can be advantageous but people really need to understand that it’s complicated world and you need to step wisely,” Cluley says.