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9/3/2009
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Social Networks Fight Back

How major social networks MySpace and Facebook are building up security -- and where their weakest links remain

Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, spam, the Koobface virus, and worms: These high-profile threats to social networks have pressured major social networking companies to ratchet up their security during the past year.

Social networks have traditionally received a bad rap when it comes to security, but both MySpace and Facebook say they are working diligently to better protect their members and assist law enforcement in catching the bad guys.

The security of social networks attracted widespread attention with the recent DDoS attack that took down Twitter for hours and hobbled Facebook and LiveJournal, catching users and the social networks by surprise. The attack caused major service disruptions and came amid new research showing that cybercriminals increasingly are going after users on social networks, exploiting the trust relationship that goes with the territory there.

But hacks against social networks are nothing new, says Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for MySpace. "I found it interesting that, in general, the perception was that this was a new thing happening -- attacks taking place [on social networks]," Nigam says. "We've been focusing on [preventing attacks] since day one."

MySpace, one of the first big social networks to take off a few years ago, was hit with one of the first and biggest hacks: the Samy worm in 2006, which basically added more than 1 million "friends" to "Samy's" list in a couple of hours. Facebook and Twitter have recently been hit with attacks as their popularity and social network populations have grown, as well. And all the while, security experts and privacy proponents have called for these major social networks to improve security and user education on their sites. (Twitter did not respond to media requests for an interview for this article).

The most dangerous threats to social networks and their members are not DDoSes or Koobface, however, but the third-party applications they allow onto their sites, security experts say. Social networks, such as Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook, offer APIs for developers to write widgets and other tools and features for their sites.

"I know MySpace and Facebook have been increasing their protections. However, the same place they were vulnerable before keeps popping up, and that's in the third-party application space," says researcher Nathan Hamiel, who has conducted several social networking hacks with researcher Shawn Moyer at Black Hat and Defcon.

Other security experts agree. Third-party social networking applications are the focus of a researcher known as "theharmonyguy," who is posting major bugs in Facebook applications daily this month. He's focusing on cross-site scripting (XSS) flaws he discovered in various third-party Facebook, including some in Facebook's top 10 most popular applications.

Theharmonyguy says it's not just an application problem, but a Facebook API problem, as well. "They are giving the application developer full access to the [user's] profile," he says. He says Facebook isn't fully vetting third-party apps for bugs or other security issues, either.

Facebook, meanwhile, says it's helping theharmonyguy alert the third-party developers of vulnerabilities he finds in their apps. "We encourage people to use caution when authorizing third-party apps and only authorize those that they trust. We also have a team here that investigates applications that are reported for misusing data or otherwise violating our platform guidelines," a Facebook spokesperson says.

MySpace's Nigam says MySpace runs vulnerability scans and tests of each third-party application before it goes live. "We're doing the work for them," he says. "We put solid security in place and run tests against [the third-party applications] and make sure there's no exploitable code, no malformed HTMLs in there."

Nigam says third-party developers for MySpace undergo a vetting process that includes not only the security of their apps, but also the safety, policy, and the application writer is also under review before any app goes live. "We knew as soon as we allowed third-party applications to enter the site that at some point, people would find ways to exploit that process," he says. "So we spent a considerable amount of time planning for exactly that."

And if there are any problems with the application, MySpace can drop and purge it quickly from the site, he says. "We're pretty vigilant when it comes to protecting our users from a bad application," he says. 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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