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Facebook blocks Secret Crush over adware row

Spurned Zango pleads innocence

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Facebook has blocked the "Secret Crush" widget for violation of its terms of service, following a row about the use of the application to dupe users into downloading adware onto their PCs.

The widget - which poses as a "Secret Crush" request inviting prospective marks to find out which of their friends might have the hots for them - acts as a social worm, prompting users to unwittingly download the infamous Zango adware application, security appliance firm Fortinet warned last week.

Users tempted into installing the application were told they need to invite at least five friends. However, no secret crush is ever revealed. Instead users are directed to an external website which invites Facebook users to download potentially unwanted applications that display pop-up advertising software from Zango.

Zango was established as a rebranding exercise following the 2006 acquisition of Hotbar by 180solutions. The firm publishes Hotbar, Seekmo Search Assistant, and other adware programs of dubious merit.

The name of the Facebook widget was changed from "Secret Crush" to "My Admirer" after news of the threat emerged last week. In a statement, Facebook said it had disabled the application for violating its terms of service.

"Facebook is committed to user safety and security and, to that end, its Terms of Service for developers explicitly state that applications should not use adware and spyware. Users should employ the same precautions while downloading software from Facebook applications that they use when downloading software on their desktop. We have contacted the developers and have disabled the Secret Crush application for violating Facebook Platform Terms of Service," it said.

Fortinet claimed that four per cent of Facebook's users had installed the Secret Crush application by the time it was disabled.

Zango, which disputes the characterisation of its software as potentially unwanted adware, claims these figures are way off the mark and scoffs at suggestions that the developers of Secret Crush have made millions from its affiliate program.

It said ads for its Zango Astrology application included some for Crush Calculator, a subscription horoscope service. "Although we did not purchase this ad directly, it was placed by one of our advertising partners within the Facebook system," it said.

Zango claimed that the Secret Crush application does not surreptitiously install anything, much less its software. "At no point in adding the Secret Crush widget to a Facebook profile does the widget install either spyware or Zango software, or even attempt to do so. Any suggestion that Zango software is being 'secretly installed' is simply not true.

"Moreover, our general security monitoring of the Zango network has shown no abnormal increase in installations – something we would have seen based on the reported usage numbers of the Secret Crush widget."

We put these allegations to Fortinet and were told it stands by its research. "After additional investigation, Fortinet confirms that our research related to the 'Secret Crush' (Facebook Widget) was accurate as of posting our advisory on 2 January," it said.

Fortinet is far from alone in warning that Secret Crush poses an adware risk. Other security vendors including Trend Micro, Sophos, McAfee and Symantec have also posted warnings. A number of these security experts formed a group on Facebook to warn love-hungry social networkers against the application. ®

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