Facebook's Timeline will be boon for hackers

'Story of your life' display makes it easier for criminals to dig up data for social engineered attacks, says researcher

Facebook's new Timeline will make it even easier for criminals and others to mine the social network for personal information they can use to launch malicious attacks and steal passwords, a researcher said today.

Timeline, which Facebook unveiled yesterday at a developer conference and plans to roll out to users in a few weeks, summarizes important past events in a one-page display.

According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Timeline is "the story of your life,"

That has experts at U.K.-based Sophos concerned.

"Timeline makes it a heck of a lot easier [for attackers] to collect information on people," said Chet Wisniewski, a Sophos security researcher. "It's not that the data isn't already there on Facebook, but it's currently not in an easy-to-use format."

Cybercriminals often unearth personal details from social networking sites to craft targeted attacks, noted Wisniewski, and Timeline will make their job simpler.

"And Facebook encourages people to fill in the blanks [in the Timeline]," said Wisniewski, referring to the new tool's prompting users to add details to sections that are blank.

Because people often use personal information to craft passwords or the security questions that some sites and services demand answered before passwords are changed, the more someone adds to Timeline, the more they put themselves at risk, said Wisniewski.

"Remember the hack of [former Alaska governor] Sarah Palin's account?" asked Wisniewski. "That hacker found the answers to her security questions online."

A former University of Tennessee student who bragged it took him just 45 minutes of research to reset Palin's Yahoo Mail account password was convicted on multiple federal felony counts last year.

Hackers can also use what they find on Facebook and elsewhere to craft convincing emails that include malware or links to malicious sites, noted Wisniewski, even if the individual is not the target.

"It may be about the fact that you work for RSA [Security]," he said, referring to the emails sent to low-level employees at that firm earlier this year. Those emails, which included malware embedded in Excel spreadsheets, gave attackers a foothold on RSA's network. The criminals then scoured RSA's systems and stole confidential information about its popular SecurID authentication token technology.

Others, not strictly hackers, could use Timeline to quickly dig up dirt as well, said Wisniewski.

"Someone could use it to gather information to harass you, or someone at work competing for your job could use it," he said.

"The more you put in there to make it complete -- and we've been conditioned to finish forms -- the easier it is for someone with ill intent to gather information about you," said Wisniewski.

Although current Facebook privacy settings will apply to the Timeline -- letting users decide who sees what -- and the Timeline can be edited to remove an embarrassing past, Wisniewski was pessimistic about users' decision making.

"Call us paranoid or prudent -- we're paid to worry about this -- but for 99% of people, the danger doesn't even cross their mind," said Wisniewski.

In an unscientific survey Sophos ran on its website today, nearly 50% agreed that the Facebook Timeline worried them, while about 17% said they liked the idea or would get used to it.

Wisniewski admitted that the poll probably doesn't reflect most Facebook users' opinions. "They're doubly self-selected," he acknowledged, "first for taking the survey and second because they're concerned enough about security to go to our website."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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