News Flash - There is no privacy on social networks

Filed Under: Data loss, Facebook, Privacy, Social networks

Personal Data sharing from HighwayCharlie's Flickr photostream

Extra! Extra! Posting information to social networks results in unwanted data leakage! Oh wait... You are reading my blog. I suspect you've figured this out by now, as I can't seem to stop repeating myself.

Today everyone has been talking about a fictitious set of social media profiles under the name Robin Sage. Thomas Ryan of Provide Security created them for a presentation at this year's Blackhat USA 2010 conference. He carefully crafted the profiles on multiple social networks to research people's willingness to share information with strangers based only on their evaluations of information provided through those social media applications.

Many of the people who "friended" the false profiles were military and DOD personnel. Some of these folks should have clued in to the false nature of the profile, as the name Robin Sage is a stage in the training of US Army Special Forces troops.

The results that have been published so far are disturbing, especially considering the sensitive positions many of the victims possess. Some soldiers who became friends with Robin Sage published photos on Facebook that contained Geo IP information revealing operational positions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I look forward to Thomas's presentation, but the reason I am writing today is to draw attention to two problem behaviors I repeatedly see among social media users.

  1. Acting on a completely different definition of what a friend is compared to real life ("meat space," if you prefer). The majority of Facebook and LinkedIn users seem to have adopted the habit of associating with and friending anything that moves online. Remember that you are entrusting these people with your photos, phone numbers and often personal details and preferences... Would you share all of this information with a random stranger on the street who might have something in common with you? Or who claims to know someone you might know? Why are you doing this online?
  2. Lacking understanding of technology and the detailed metadata that is embedded in almost every digital file format. Music you buy on iTunes has your email address embedded in it. When you take a photo many cameras embed your location, date and time, and even an identifier unique to your smartphone. Microsoft Office, Open Office and Acrobat documents contain a treasure trove of information that can be teased out if the documents are not carefully sanitized. Surely if the soldiers had realized the photos they posted to Facebook might reveal their locations and provide aid to their enemies, they never would have done so.

All of this brings me back to a very simple fact: Everything you put online is public. Think about information you are sharing on Facebook as if you were printing it on a poster and hanging it in the subway. Do you think Facebook's storage systems are designed to safeguard this information with the security it deserves? I'll let you draw your own conclusions...

Creative Commons image courtesy of HighwayCharlie's Flickr photostream.

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About the author

Chester Wisniewski is a Senior Security Advisor at Sophos Canada. He provides advice and insight into the latest threats for security and IT professionals with the goal of providing clear guidance on complex topics. You can follow Chester on Twitter as @chetwisniewski, on App.net as Chester, Chester Wisniewski on Google Plus or send him an email at chesterw@sophos.com.