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Stealth installs and adware come to Facebook

Apps secretly added to profiles

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Updated Already under fire for taking liberties with users' privacy, Facebook was outed on Thursday as a distributor of unwanted applications, some of which install adware or are added to user profiles without permission.

As noted earlier by PC World, the social networking site silently adds apps to profiles whenever a user is logged in and browses to certain sites. Facebook displays no dialogue box or notification window asking permission, and there is no easy way to opt out of the process.

A second report by security researcher Gadi Evron found that Facebook is being used as a distribution platform for adware such as the FLV Direct media player. The software comes bundled with adware from something called Zugo Search, according to researchers from anti-virus provider Sunbelt Software.

In a game of whack-a-mole, Facebook appears to be killing the links to the FLVDirect.exe download within hours of them being posted, but as soon as one goes down another seems to go up. To entice users to install the crapware, the come-ons include images of well-endowed cleavage in a pink bikini.

Since its beginning, Facebook's philosophy with user privacy has been that it's better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission, and that's what seems to be going on here. Rather than seeking consent before installing apps from partners such as TechCrunch, CNET and The Washington Post, Facebook just adds them to user profiles. It's hard for users to make informed privacy decisions when they aren't even aware it's happening.

What's more, short of logging out of Facebook each time before browsing to another site, there doesn't appear to be much users can do to stop the stealth installs. (We asked Facebook PR if there was an easier way to prevent them, but we never got a response.)

As we pointed out, Facebook appears to be trying to block the adware links. But with more than 1 million reported developers, it's questionable how effective that strategy will be. As Evron notes, Facebook has long been premised on the idea that anyone can write apps.

"This openness has been an asset to the entire community, but unfortunately, when a society grows and criminal elements present themselves, systems sometimes can't scale," he writes. "Some freedoms have to go if the system itself is to survive." ®

Update

After this posting was published, a Facebook spokesman sent the following statement:

Application developers must comply with our Developer Principles and Policies, which require that applications provide a trustworthy experience. We have a dedicated team that conducts spot reviews of top applications and of many other applications, including looking at the data they need to run the application versus the data they gather. This team regularly enforces our guidelines and disables applications that we find to be in violation.

There was a bug that was showing applications on a user’s Application Settings page that the user hadn’t authorized. No information was shared with those applications, and the applications did not appear to anyone but the user. This bug has been fixed.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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