Monthly Archives: March 2009

Facebook Giving a Bit Too Much Away

Facebook has been serving up public listings for over a year now. Unlike most of the site, anybody can view public listings, even non-members. They offer a window into the Facebook world for those who haven’t joined yet, since Facebook doesn’t allow full profiles to be publicly viewable by non-members (unlike MySpace and others). Of course, this window into Facebook comes with a prominent “Sign Up” button, growth still being the main mark of success in the social networking world. The goal is for non-members to stumble across a public listing, see how many friends are already using Facebook, and then join. Economists call this a network effect, and Facebook is shrewdly harnessing it.

Of course, to do this, Facebook is making public every user’s name, photo, and 8 friendship links. Affiliations with organizations, causes, or products are also listed, I just don’t have any on my profile (though my sister does). This is quite a bit of information given away by a feature many active Facebook user are unaware of. Indeed, it’s more information than the Facebook’s own privacy policy indicates is given away. When the feature was launched in 2007, every over-18 user was automatically opted-in, as have been new users since then. You can opt out, but few people do-out of more than 500 friends of mine, only 3 had taken the time to opt out. It doesn’t help that most users are unaware of the feature, since registered users don’t encounter it.

Making matters worse, public listings aren’t protected from crawling. In fact they are designed to be indexed by search engines. In our own experiments, we were able to download over 250,000 public listings per day using a desktop PC and a fairly crude Python script. For a serious data aggregator getting every user’s listing is no sweat. So what can one do with 200 million public listings?

I explored this question along with Jonathan Anderson, Frank Stajano, and Ross Anderson in a new paper which we presented today at the ACM Social Network Systems Workshop in Nuremberg. Facebook’s public listings give us a random sample of the social graph, leading to some interesting exercises in graph theory. As we describe in the paper, it turns out that this sampled graph allows us to approximate many properties of the complete network surprisingly well: degree and centrality of nodes, small dominating sets, short paths, and community structure. These are all things marketers and sociologists alike would love to know for the complete Facebook graph.

This result leads to two interesting conclusions. First, protecting a social graph is hard. Consistent with previous results, we found that giving away a seemingly small amount can allow much information to be inferred. It’s also been shown that anonymising a social graph is almost impossible.

Second, Facebook is developing a track record of releasing features and then being surprised by the privacy implications, from Beacon to NewsFeed and now Public Search. Analogous to security-critical software, where new code is extensively tested and evaluated before being deployed, social networks should have a formal privacy review of all new features before they are rolled out (as, indeed, should other web services which collect personal information).  Features like public search listings shouldn’t make it off the drawing board.

The Snooping Dragon

There’s been much interest today in a report that Shishir Nagaraja and I wrote on Chinese surveillance of the Tibetan movement. In September last year, Shishir spent some time cleaning out Chinese malware from the computers of the Dalai Lama’s private office in Dharamsala, and what we learned was somewhat disturbing.

Later, colleagues from the University of Toronto followed through by hacking into one of the control servers Shishir identified (something we couldn’t do here because of the Computer Misuse Act); their report relates how the attackers had controlled malware on hundreds of other PCs, many in government agencies of countries such as India, Vietnam and the Phillippines, but also in US firms such as AP and Deloittes.

The story broke today in the New York Times; see also coverage in the Telegraph, the BBC, CNN, the Times of India, AP, InfoWorld, Wired and the Wall Street Journal.

Democracy Theatre on Facebook

You may remember a big PR flap last month about Facebook‘s terms of service, followed by Facebook backing down and promising to involve users in a self-governing process of drafting their future terms. This is an interesting step with little precedent amongst commercial web sites. Facebook now has enough users to be the fifth largest nation on earth (recently passing Brazil), and operators of such immense online societies need to define a cyber-government which satisfies their users while operating lawfully within a multitude of jurisdictional boundaries, as well as meeting their legal obligations to the shareholders who own the company.

Democracy is an intriguing approach, and it is encouraging that Facebook is considering this path. Unfortunately, after some review my colleagues and I are left thoroughly disappointed by both the new documents and the specious democratic process surrounding them. We’ve outlined our arguments in a detailed report, the official deadline for commentary is midnight tonight.

The non-legally binding Statement of Principles outline an admirable set of goals in plain language, which was refreshing. However, these goals are then undermined for a variety of legal and business reasons by the “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities“, which would effectively be the new Terms of Service. For example, Facebook demands that application developers comply with user’s privacy settings which it doesn’t provide access to, states that users should have “programmatic access” and then bans users from interacting with the site via “automated means,” and states that the service will transcend national boundaries while banning users from signing up if they live in a country embargoed by the United States.

The stated goal of fairness and equality is also lost. The Statement of Rights and Responsibilities primarily assigns rights to Facebook and responsibilities on users, developers, and advertisers. Facebook still demands a broad license to all user content, shifts all responsibility for enforcing privacy onto developers, and sneakily disclaims itself of all liability. Yet it demands an unrealistic set of obligations: a literal reading of the document requires users to get explicit permission from other users before viewing their content. Furthermore, they have applied the banking industry’s well-known trick of shifting liability to customers, binding users to not do anything to “jeopardize the security of their account,” which can be used to dissolve the contract.

The biggest missed opportunity, however, is the utter failure to provide a real democratic process as promised. Users are free to comment on terms, but Facebook is under no obligation to listen. Facebook‘s official group for comments contains a disorganised jumble of thousands of comments, some insightful and many inane. It is difficult to extract intelligent analysis here. Under certain conditions a vote can be called, but this is hopelessly weakened: it only applies to certain types of changes, the conditions of the vote are poorly specified and subject to manipulation by Facebook, and in fact they reserve the right to ignore the vote for “administrative reasons.”

With a nod to Bruce Schneier, we call such steps “democracy theatre.” It seems the goal is not to actually turn governance over to users, but to use the appearance of democracy and user involvement to ward off future criticism. Our term may be new, but this trick is not, it has been used by autocratic regimes around the world for decades.

Facebook’s new terms represent a genuine step forward with improved clarity in certain areas, but an even larger step backward in using democracy theatre to cover the fact that Facebook is a business and its ultimate accountability is to its shareholders. The outrage over the previous terms was real and it was justified, social networks mean a great deal to their users, and they want to have a real say.  Since Facebook appears unwilling to actually do so, though, we would be remiss to allow them to deflect user’s anger with flowery language and a sham democratic process. For this reason we cannot support the new terms.

[UPDATE: Our report has been officially backed by the Open Rights Group]

EFF and Tor Project in Google Summer of Code

The EFF and the Tor Project have been accepted into Google Summer of Code. This programme offers students a stipend for contributing to open source software over a 3 month period. Google Summer of Code has been running since 2005 and the Tor project has been a participant since 2007.

We are looking for talented and motivated students to work on a number of projects to improve Tor, and related applications. Students are also welcome to come up with their own ideas. Applications must be submitted by 3 April 2009. For further information, and details on how to apply, see the Tor blog.

National Fraud Strategy

Today the Government “launches” its National Fraud Strategy. I qualify the verb because none of the quality papers seems to be running the story, and the press releases have not yet appeared on the websites of the Attorney General or the Ministry of Justice.

And well might Baroness Scotland be ashamed. The Strategy is a mishmash of things that are being done already with one new initiative – a National Fraud Reporting Centre, to be run by the City of London Police. This is presumably intended to defuse the Lords’ criticisms of the current system whereby fraud must be reported to the banks, not to the police. As our blog has frequently reported, banks dump liability for fraud on customers by making false claims about system security and imposing unreasinable terms and conditions. This is a regulatory failure: the FSA has been just as gullible in accepting the banking industry’s security models as they were about accepting its credit-risk models. (The ombudsman has also been eager to please.)

So what’s wrong with the new arrangements? Quite simply, the National Fraud Reporting Centre will nestle comfortably alongside the City force’s Dedicated Cheque and Plastic Crime Unit, which investigates card fraud but is funded by the banks. Given this disgraceful arrangement, which is more worthy of Uzbekistan than of Britain, you have to ask how eager the City force will be to investigate offences that bankers don’t want investigated, such as the growing number of insider frauds and chip card cloning? And how vigorously will City cops investigate their paymasters for the fraud of claiming that their systems are secure, when they’re not, in order to avoid paying compensation to defrauded accountholders? The purpose of the old system was to keep the fraud figures artificially low while enabling the banks to control such investigations as did take place. And what precisely has changed?

The lessons of the credit crunch just don’t seem to have sunk in yet. The Government just can’t kick the habit of kowtowing to bankers.

Hot Topics in Privacy Enhancing Technologies (HotPETs 2009)

HotPETs – the 2nd Hot Topics in Privacy Enhancing Technologies (co-located with PETS) will be held in Seattle, 5–7 August 2009.

HotPETs is the forum for new ideas on privacy, anonymity, censorship resistance, and related topics. Work-in-progress is welcomed, and the format of the workshop will be to encourage feedback and discussion. Submissions are especially encouraged on the human side of privacy: what do people believe about privacy? How does privacy work in existing institutions?

Papers (up to 15 pages) are due by 8 May 2009. Further information can be found in the call for papers.