Last week an anonymous person published a file containing half a million images, many of which had been gathered from private profiles on MySpace. This may be the most serious privacy breach yet at MySpace. Kevin Poulsen’s story at Wired News implies that the leak may have been deliberate payback for MySpace failing to fix the vulnerability that allowed the leaks.
“I think the greatest motivator was simply to prove that it could be done,” file creator “DMaul” says in an e-mail interview. “I made it public that I was saving these images. However, I am certain there are mischievous individuals using these hacks for nefarious purposes.”
The MySpace hole surfaced last fall, and it was quickly seized upon by the self-described pedophiles and ordinary voyeurs who used it, among other things, to target 14- and 15-year-old users who’d caught their eye online. A YouTube video showed how to use the bug to retrieve private profile photos. The bug also spawned a number of ad-supported sites that made it easy to retrieve photos. One such site reported more than 77,000 queries before MySpace closed the hole last Friday following Wired News’ report.
MySpace plugged a a href=”http://grownupgeek.blogspot.com/2006/08/myspace-closes-giant-security-hole.html”>similar security hole in August 2006 when it made the front page of Digg, four months after it surfaced.
The implication here, not quite stated, is that DMaul was trying to draw attention to the flaw in order to force MySpace to fix it. If this is what it took to get MySpace to fix the flaw, this story reflects very badly on MySpace.
Anyone who has discovered security flaws in commercial products knows that companies react to flaws in two distinct ways. Smart companies react constructively: they’re not happy about the flaws or the subsequent PR fallout, but they acknowledge the truth and work in their customers’ interest to fix problems promptly. Other companies deny problems and delay addressing them, treating security flaws solely as PR problems rather than real risks.
Smart companies have learned that a constructive response minimizes the long-run PR damage and, not coincidentally, protects customers. But some companies seem to lock themselves into the deny-delay strategy.
Now suppose you know that a company’s product has a flaw that is endangering its customers, and the company is denying and delaying. There is something you can do that will force them to fix the problem – you can arrange an attention-grabbing demonstration that will show customers (and the press) that the risk is real. All you have to do is exploit the flaw yourself, get a bunch of private data, and release it. Which is pretty much what DMaul did.
To be clear, I’m not endorsing this course of action. I’m just pointing out why someone might find it attractive despite the obvious ethical objections.
The really interesting aspect of Poulsen’s article is that he doesn’t quite connect the dots and say that DMaul meant to punish MySpace. But Poulsen is savvy enough that he probably wouldn’t have missed the implication either, and he could have written the article to avoid it had he wanted to. Maybe I’m reading too much into the article, but I can’t help suspecting that DMaul was trying to punish MySpace for its lax security.