Feeds

Facebook enables apps to peek at mail

I'm in ur inbox, mocking ur privacy settings

The essential guide to IT transformation

Updated Facebook plans to open up members' inboxes and notifications to developers have drawn fire from security experts as an unacceptable privacy risk.

The social network site published plans to release a notification and Mailbox API in a post on a developers' forum last month. The development has received little attention since, despite marking a huge shift in how much confidential data software applications on the social networking might be able to access.

Users who sign up to applications that make use of the feature give the green-light for software to scan the contents of messages sent through the social networking website, as Facebook explains.

The Mailbox API allows you to access your users' messages, once they grant your application the new read_mailbox extended permission. This lets your applications provide an interface for users to view their messages. For example, your application could pop up an alert when the user receives a new message.

The social networking site suggests the technology might be used to develop desktop applications that allow users to check their company's Page stream, as well as read messages and receive notifications, all via their desktop. As well as the contents of messages, the recipients of a thread, time and date information would also be exposed.

About the only thing not enabled by the Mailbox API is the opportunity to send messages.

The notifications API, meanwhile, allows applications developers to retrieve users' notifications and use this data within apps they develop. Notifications cover everything from status updates through whether one of their contacts has taken a quiz through application-related activity.

But it's the mail software hook feature that has security watchers worried.

"The idea of Facebook applications being given free rein to mine users' inboxes and sent folders sends a shiver down my spine," Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos told El Reg.

Even with safeguards and clear warnings, Cluley is wary about the technology.

"Obviously we have to hope that Facebook does not enable this functionality by default, and presents a clearly worded warning to its users if they try and add an application which insists on users waiving the rights to a private mailbox to third parties," he said.

"But my worry is that many of Facebook's 300 million users will be so keen to see what Sex and the City character they are, or to send a Best Friend Forever ecard to their online buddies, that they'll glaze over the rights they are signing away when they add an app. Even if you do decide to add an Facebook app that you trust to access your mailbox, there have been occasions in the past where app developers have used a 'bait and switch' trick to change the nature of their app overnight."

Facebook users are likely to include more detail in messages than in status updates or the like, a factor that increases the privacy risk.

Gmail users allow Google to scan the content of emails to display targeted adverts, a privacy concern for some. Facebook's approach goes even further, Cluley warned.

"Some people are nervous enough of Google using computers to examine the content of email to display targeted adverts in Gmail, but the idea of handing over this information to third party external developers sounds like a privacy nightmare waiting to happen," Cluley told El Reg.

"An additional worry is that it appears Facebook is saying it may in the future integrate functionality which would allow application developers to send mails from their users' inboxes. It doesn't take a great imagination to picture how this could be abused by spammers and malware authors."

Update

Facebook defended its plans to open up members' inboxes to application developers as a technology that will spur innovation in areas such as mobile messaging. The social networking networking argues that its Mailbox API has fewer security concerns than Gmail for the privacy conscious in a response analysed in a follow-up story here. ®

Next gen security for virtualised datacentres

More from The Register

next story
Rupert Murdoch says Google is worse than the NSA
Mr Burns vs. The Chocolate Factory, round three!
e-Borders fiasco: Brits stung for £224m after US IT giant sues UK govt
Defeat to Raytheon branded 'catastrophic result'
Germany 'accidentally' snooped on John Kerry and Hillary Clinton
Dragnet surveillance picks up EVERYTHING, USA, m'kay?
Snowden on NSA's MonsterMind TERROR: It may trigger cyberwar
Plus: Syria's internet going down? That was a US cock-up
Who needs hackers? 'Password1' opens a third of all biz doors
GPU-powered pen test yields more bad news about defences and passwords
Think crypto hides you from spooks on Facebook? THINK AGAIN
Traffic fingerprints reveal all, say boffins
Microsoft cries UNINSTALL in the wake of Blue Screens of Death™
Cache crash causes contained choloric calamity
prev story

Whitepapers

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup
IT departments are embracing cloud backup, but there’s a lot you need to know before choosing a service provider. Learn all the critical things you need to know.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.