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.

Filed Under: hacking, passwords, tunisia
Companies: facebook


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  1. icon
    leichter (profile), 30 Jan 2011 @ 4:44am

    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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