UVa Today Article on Facebook Privacy Work

31 January 2008

UVa Today has an article about Adrienne Felt’s work on the privacy risks of the Facebook platform:
U.Va. Engineering School Student Probes Facebook’s Vulnerabilities, UVa Today, January 30, 2008.

Here are a few excerpts:

Facebook, the social networking platform that has redefined communications, has millions of users. According to University of Virginia computer science major Adrienne Felt, all of these users should be concerned about security.

Felt, a fourth-year student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at U.Va., leads a research project on privacy issues surrounding social networking platforms and is investigating the information sharing that occurs when users download a Facebook application — a program that allows the user to interact with other users in interesting ways, from sharing music to playing games.

Although these applications add variety to a Facebook user’s profile page, they also increase the user’s vulnerability. Here’s how: anyone with an account on Facebook can create an application. Although this application appears as if it is part of Facebook’s platform, it is actually running on application developer’s server. When a user installs an application, that application’s developer is given the ability to see everything the user can see — name, address, friends’ profiles, photos, etc.

Felt’s goal is to make users more aware of how their private information is being used — and to close this privacy loophole.

She has developed a privacy-by-proxy system — a way for Facebook to hide the user’s private information, while still maintaining the applications’ functionalities. Under Felt’s system, at the point at which the Facebook server is communicating with the application developer’s server, the Facebook server would provide the outside server with a random sequence of letters instead of the user’s name (and other personal information).

Felt is working on refining the privacy-by-proxy design and building a prototype implementation. “This is the first step,” she said. “Hopefully, the research findings and proposed solution will trigger more responsible privacy and information management policies from social networking sites and will better inform users.”

The full article also includes an audio clip.

[Added 2 March] There is an audio version of this story on The Oscar Show: Privacy and Facebook, 27 February 2008.