Facebook watchers offer advice against data leaks

A recent lawsuit filed against the operator of a Canadian porn site by social networking giant Facebook Inc. should serve as a security warning for both small and large enterprises, analysts said.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Facebook is suing 17 individuals, including two at Toronto-based Istra Holdings Inc. – who own adult advertising affiliate SlickCash.com – alleging the defendants hacked its Web site computers and tried to access the personal information of its users. The lawsuit, filed in a San Jose, Calif. court, claims the defendants attempted to gain unlawful access to Facebook’s servers at least 200,000 times during a two week period last June.

None of the allegations have yet been proven in court.

David Senf, director of security and software research at Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd., said the allegations appeared to him as a group of people pulling a “smash n’ grab” – go in, get a bunch of data and get out. And while this method certainly gets hackers the information they want quickly, Senf argued social networking sites are seeing far more dangerous hacking techniques.

“There are many other attackers trolling around Facebook, Myspace and other social networking sites, building their databases slowly and methodically,” Senf said. “But with new groups forming on these sites all the time, an attacker could find a group, pretend they know somebody in it, be granted access and ultimately walk off with a bunch of personal data. It’s more time consuming than what these attackers tried, but likely more effective.”

Facebook has an estimated 34 million users around the world. It requires users to enter personal information to gain entry to its site. The company also encourages its members to post photos, contact information, employment history and other personal details. And with user information now seemingly at risk, enterprises might be wary of taking their corporate presence or marketing materials to these social networking sites.

“A fair number of companies I’ve seen want their employees on Facebook as a networking tool,” said Michelle Warren, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. “It’s definitely important to network and Facebook is a fabulous medium for that, but I think the missing link is that users are not aware of the security concerns. Companies who encourage their employees to utilize its networking opportunities should be informing their employees of the possible security risks.”

In addition to this, Senf said, IT managers will soon need to worry as much about employees sharing sensitive corporate information, as company executives do about employees wasting their work days socializing on these sites. “Facebook is seen more as a time suck than a security vulnerability at this point,” Senf said. “But as an increasing number of employees share information on the Web through blogging and social sites such as Facebook, data leakage will become more of a concern.”

As for what lessons IT departments can learn from the alleged hacking incident, Senf said it only provides further warning to companies to advise their employees to be careful in what they divulge.

“It raises awareness of security issues overall,” Senf said. “But, I’ve heard countless small and midmarket firms say ‘see it’s really just something that the big high profile guys need to worry about, not me.’ To these companies, I think it’s important to remember that Facebook was able to detect this attack, whereas many firms in Canada wouldn’t be able to.”

Facebook declined to comment on this story because of the impending legal matter. A call to one of the defendants, Brian Fabian at Istra Holdings, was not returned.

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