How Facebook Dealt With The Tunisian Government Trying To Steal Every User's Passwords

from the security-in-action dept

If you haven’t yet read it, you owe it to yourself to read Alexis Madrigal’s fascinating piece at The Atlantic about how Facebook responded to what apparently was a government-run country-wide hack attack on Facebook (prior to the recent regime change) designed to capture every Tunisian user’s Facebook password. As the article notes, for all the talk of how much Twitter was used to communicate during the Tunisian protests and eventual ouster of the old government, Facebook may have played an even bigger role.

However, Facebook’s security staff had been hearing anecdotal stories from people in Tunisia claiming their accounts had been hacked, along with some indications that something odd was going on. Eventually, they realized that the Tunisian ISPs appeared to be running a giant man-in-the-middle keylogger system, that would record a user’s password any time they logged into Facebook. So how do you respond to that if you’re Facebook? A two-step approach: force all traffic from Tunisia to run through https: to encrypt the passwords and prevent this from happening and then set up a system for when people logged in, asking them to identify a friend, in order to prove it was really them. Of course, all of this makes me wonder why Facebook doesn’t always use https, but that’s another question for another day.

While the solution wasn’t perfect, it appears to mostly do the job, even if it came a bit later in the process. But just from an outsider’s perspective, it is a fascinating story of how various internet tools are playing into world politics, and how that leads to some totally unexpected situations.

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Companies: facebook

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Comments on “How Facebook Dealt With The Tunisian Government Trying To Steal Every User's Passwords”

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RobShaver (profile) says:

All Sites Should Be Doing This For Passwords

Man-in-the-middle is easy at any unencrypted wi-fi hot spot like Starbucks or at the curb by your house. If you log into your bank your account (meaning your money) is at risk.

The CPU load is negligible compared to having your bank account drained.

This has been a known problem for years. I’m surprised Facebook isn’t doing this for all accounts as they should.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: All Sites Should Be Doing This For Passwords

Facebook sucks are security… Why else would they have given access to most of your private information to “developers” (quotes because the term is used very loosely, as anyone can become a developer). Countries are forcing it to enforce its security because it has always been, and probably will always be, one of the worst secured sites out there. Kinda sucks for the ones using it that it’s so popular heh.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: All Sites Should Be Doing This For Passwords

The CPU load is negligible compared to having your bank account drained.

Not if that bank account belongs to someone else, like the person logging in, as opposed to the person paying for the server. The person paying for the server just wants to save every penny they can. (Like Techdirt here. That’s why they don’t even offer HTTPS connections.) See how that works? And people will still log-in and send their passwords in the clear over the internet, anyway. For example, you did, here, didn’t you?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: All Sites Should Be Doing This For Passwords

If you are using a banking system that only does HTTPS on the login stop now or you will have your bank account drained.

To maintain the connection one needs session cookies and those can be hijacked if transferred in non encrypted channels, meaning anyone can use that cookie to say it was you.

mischab1 says:

Re: Re: Re:

The difference is that you aren’t supposed to be able to see anything on FaceBook unless you have signed in to your account. And then you are only supposed to see stuff that other people have given you access to. (Doesn’t matter that most people allow everybody to see everything. Those of us who want to keep stuff private to select friends can do so.)

Here at techdirt the whole point is to allow everyone to see every post and comment. Signing in gives you some extra benefits but is not required.

Anonymous Howard, Cowering says:

https = Hephaestus Tries, Totally Proven Stupid

Dude. Try reading the whole article.

“…running a giant man-in-the-middle keylogger system, that would record a user’s password any time they logged into Facebook.”

You shouldn’t need Mike to restate every part of the post in every paragraph. When was the last time you used Facebook and entered your password somewhere other than the login page? Or Techdirt?

Pot, Kettle and Black would all enjoy a hearty laugh when they met and discussed Hephaestus’ posts.

Hephaestus (profile) says:

Re: https = Hephaestus Tries, Totally Proven Stupid

“…running a giant man-in-the-middle keylogger system, that would record a user’s password any time they logged into Facebook.”

I will give you a clue, since you so need it. “Perfect Citizen” is an NSA project that allows for network monitoring. It is so well know it showed up in popular science, wired, I could go on but I have been proven totally stupid by you.

Here is some stuff from the EFF and government monitoring of social networks.

The government gives incentives (Contracts) if you comply with their requests to monitor network traffic. They also remove incentives (don’t give you contracts and stop doing business with you) if you don’t comply.

Its not like the US government is monitoring computer networks, social networks, what you are searching for, or has given pardons to ATT and other communicatons providers for illeaglly wiretaping entire networks, or anything like that.

I truely love being proven wrong, so I agree I have been proven totally stupid.

ajnachakra (profile) says:

keylogging != unencrypted packet reading

“the Tunisian ISPs appeared to be running a giant man-in-the-middle keylogger system…”

Sorry if this sounds pedantic, but you (and the source) should make the distinction between keylogging (a local action) and the packet reading of unencrypted HTTP traffic to find clear text passwords. These two methods are quite different and constitute very different levels of intrusion. These two methods also take two very different approaches to guard against.

p.s. Keep up the great work Mike; I truly appreciate all the work you put into Techdirt!

Anonymous Coward says:


It was reported that they were injecting javascript onto facebook login pages. There’s keylogger called “The Middler” that uses javascript’s onKeyPress event. Other javascript tricks can change a form to send someone’s password (onSubmit) to a server via ajax and store it, then bounce them to the real login processor. They might not have been found out had they not injected javascript and simply read login packets instead.

leichter (profile) says:

Sigh. So many remarks, so little understanding. And in this case, understanding is actually quite important.

The attack on Facebook *was* a man-in-the-middle-attack, not just keystroke logging. Like many sites – including stores and even banks – Facebook encrypted the password (and probably the username) that you sent. You’ll see sites that do that show a little “why is this secure?” help box to assure you that, no, the page itself doesn’t show a lock indicator (because it isn’t https) but your credentials are perfectly safe because they are sent “using 128-bit encryption”.

But they are not at all safe because you have no idea who you are actually talking to. It could be Facebook/the store/your bank; or it could be someone who mocked up a page that looks like Facebook’s/your store’s/your bank’s, complete with a nice, encrypted username/password mechanism, sending your username/password right to them. The Tunisian attack was a slight variation in that they modified the real page on the fly to inject this attack, rather than making up a fake site – but the end result was the same.

If you’re going to put your stuff in a safe-deposit box handed to you by a bank official – make sure you’re really at a bank, and that it’s a real bank official handing you the box! Relying on a “secure username/password” field on an unauthenticated page is like accepting an offer of a safety deposit box from some guy on the street outside the bank. Sure, the box is solid steel and the lock is high quality – but who else has the key?

If a site you deal with offers “security” by encrypting just the login information – complain to them. You’ll almost certainly be unable to get a message to anyone who actually understands the issue – but if you follow up by closing your accounts, eventually they’ll get a clue.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????– Jerry

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