Feb. 9, 2010

Posted by in Facebook | 4 comments

Facebook’s Fluid Definition of Publicly Available Information

In yet another example of security through obscurity, Facebook modified their platform last July to prevent applications from accessing public photo albums for users that were not friends of the logged-in user. Facebook had previously said such applications did not violate the site’s privacy policy, since the behavior followed photo album privacy settings – applications could only load albums marked as visible to “Everyone.”

But “Everyone” is the default privacy setting for photo albums, and many users probably don’t mean for everyone to see their photos. As a CNET report noted:

A Facebook spokesperson said the company made the change so the technology more closely matched users’ privacy expectations.

“We made this change in order to ensure that users who have their profiles set to a privacy other than ‘everyone’ are not surprised by photos being exposed through the API,” Facebook engineer Matt Trainer wrote in response to complaints on the developer forum site.

In other words, Facebook introduced inconsistent application of privacy settings (are the albums available to everyone or not?) so that users would continue to believe a false representation of who could access their content.

Fast forward to 2010, as Facebook users grapple with revamped privacy controls, new default settings, and the general introduction of “publicly available information,” or PAI. With the announcement of PAI, Facebook removed users’ ability to control access for certain bits of information. Among the data now included in the PAI category: the list of your Facebook friends.

That particular change riled many critics, and Facebook eventually backpedaled a bit, allowing users to remove friends lists from their profiles. But the company made quite clear that your list of friends was still considered publicly available information. With this behavior, Facebook setup a strange distinction between permission and visibility. Everyone was technically allowed to see your friends list, but had no means to do so if you removed it from your profile.

Of course, it wasn’t long before someone discovered a “means to do so.” In December, I posted a simple trick that would reveal the names and profile pages of any user’s friends, regardless of whether they blocked such a list on their profile. I try to follow principles of responsible disclosure with security vulnerabilities, but in this case, my “hack” in no way violated or worked around Facebook’s stated privacy policy, since friends lists were now public.

But the other day, I tried using my trick once more, and noticed that it no longer worked for users who chose to hide their friends lists. I’ve also found that issuing an FQL query for the friends list of a user beside the currently logged-in user fails – I don’t recall precisely the behavior of such a command back in December.

Oddly enough, Facebook has yet to block my trick for viewing a user’s public photo albums, which avoids last July’s changes as it does not involve the Facebook API.

It seems Facebook wants to have their cake and eat it too – give users the impression they still maintain control over their data, but still classify the data as public if circumstances warrant. Personally, I think it better for the company to treat “public” information consistently so that any user surprises come now and not later when people discover other means of accessing content.

By the way, a simple adaptation of my photos trick lets you discover a user’s full name based on their profile ID (which, by the way, is included in the filename of every photo you post – and that filename may be maintained if you upload the photo to sites such as Twitter), regardless of their profile privacy. (Some users restrict access to their profile, so trying to load it directly or request their name via the Facebook API Test Console would fail.) Is this new trick a violation of user privacy or a demonstration of “publicly available information?”

  1. “control over their data”

    You need a new hobby. Or better, a girlfriend.

    People seem to want to impose their ideas of how the service should work on Facebook. There’s other ways to communicate online if you don’t like it.

    Your “friendslist” isn’t your social security number. Your boring vacation photos are just that, boring vacation photos.

    These are non-issues. Who runs Facebook and who their partnered with, that’s another story, one worth pursuing.

  2. @UGH: You know, if you actually left your e-mail address with one of your comments, we could actually have a dialogue about stories you think worth pursuing. As it is, I’m left wondering why you keep coming by to leave comments when you find my site so useless or ill-informed?


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  3. How Facebook is Adding an Identity Layer to the Internet | Social Hacking - [...] public. But Facebook has worked hard to maintain user trust, even making some content appear to be more private ...

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