Facebook fixing embarrassing privacy bug

A simple Web programming error could have exposed private data or allowed hackers to alter profiles

Facebook is fixing a Web programming bug that could have allowed hackers to alter profile pages or make restricted information public.

The flaw was discovered last week and reported to Facebook by M.J. Keith, a senior security analyst with security firm Alert Logic.

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The bug has to do with the way that Facebook checked to make sure that browsers connecting with the site were the ones they claimed to be. Facebook's servers use code called a "post_form_id" token to check that the browser trying to do something -- liking a group, for example -- was actually the browser that had logged into the account. Facebook's servers check this token before making any changes to the user's page, but Keith discovered that when he simply deleted the token from messages, he could change many settings on any Facebook account.

"It's like putting locks on a bunch of stuff but not locking them," he said in an interview.

Keith could make users' private information public, change or read profile information, even add new contact email addresses, he said. "It's pretty bad; you can do a lot of damage with it," he said.

Facebook worked with Alert Logic to fix the bug, known as a cross-site request forgery (CSRF), Facebook spokesman Simon Axten confirmed in an email message. "It's now fixed," he said. "We're not aware of any cases in which it was used maliciously."

But as of late Tuesday afternoon, Pacific time, after Axten sent his email, Facebook had not completely fixed the issue. For testing purposes, Keith created a Web page with an invisible iFrame HTML element that he programmed in Javascript. When the IDG News Service clicked on this page while logged into Facebook, it made the Facebook user automatically "like" several pages with no further interaction.

That's pretty much how an attack would have worked, Keith said. A victim would need to be tricked into clicking on a malicious Web site that contained the Javascript code that exploited the CSRF flaw.

Facebook has been under a lot of heat recently by users who feel it hasn't done enough to protect their privacy, and embarrassing technical glitches like this don't help the social-networking company's case.

Earlier this month, Facebook had to temporarily pull its chat feature, after another bug let users eavesdrop on their friends' private chat sessions.

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