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1/31/2008
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90% of Facebook Apps Have Unnecessary Access to Private Data

Researcher is building a prototype to protect users' privacy from Facebook 'widgets'

University of Virginia researchers have discovered that 90.7 percent of Facebook's most popular applications have access to users' private data, whether they need it or not -- leaving users exposed to targeted phishing attacks and identity theft. So a UVA researcher is currently building a "privacy-by-proxy" prototype aimed at hiding a user's private information on Facebook from these apps.

Today, a third-party Facebook "widget" or application requires full user privileges to a user's account on the social networking site, including his or her name, address, friends' profiles, and photos. There's no way to specify which apps can access which personal information. So Adrienne Felt, a fourth-year computer science major at UVA, is developing an application that lets Facebook users run these widgets while keeping their private data private. It basically works like this: The Facebook server gives the application a random sequence of letters in lieu of the user's name and other private data.

Felt began developing the tool after studying the top 150 Facebook third-party platform applications last fall. It turns out 8.7 percent of these widgets didn’t need any personal information, she found, and only 9.3 percent required private data -- the remaining 82 percent used "public" Facebook data, such as the user's name, network, and list of friends. Felt and fellow researcher Andrew Spisak concluded that nearly 91 percent of these apps are getting access to more privileges than they actually need in order to run.

And when users install these widgets, their data gets stored on the widgets' third-party servers. Although Facebook's terms of service say developers can't abuse the Facebook data they access, there's no way for Facebook to enforce that, Felt says, because once that data leaves Facebook's servers, it's free game to the third-party application provider.

Privacy has always been a sticky issue for social networking sites. But Facebook's third-party apps, which anyone with a Facebook account can develop, have been considered by some security experts as an open invitation for abuse. Earlier this month, Fortinet researchers found the first evidence of such abuse, reporting spyware disguised as a Facebook application spreading around the social networking site. (See 'Secret Crush' Spreads Spyware, Not Love.)

Kevin Haley, director, of product management for Symantec Security Response, says another risk with these apps is the distribution of malware. "Now that you have a platform to create programs for these sites... malware quickly follows," he says.

Felt's prototype is providing some hope for protecting and securing Facebook users' privacy. "This is the first step," says Felt, who has built several Facebook widgets herself. "Hopefully, the research findings and proposed solution will trigger more responsible privacy and information management policies from social networking sites and will better inform users."

— Kelly Jackson Higgins, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

  • Fortinet Inc.

    Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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