Facebook breach highlights data security's 'weakest link' syndrome

Facebook disclosed that sensitive data from as many as six million user accounts was exposed thanks to a year-long glitch.

Facebook recently disclosed that a system glitch resulted in the exposure of sensitive personal data from as many as six million users. The impact from this particular breach seems relatively inconsequential, but it's a sign of a larger problem when it comes to protecting personal data on the Web.

Let's start with a little about the incident itself. The Facebook data breach is related to the Download Your Information feature. When someone downloads their Facebook contact data, the glitch exposed email addresses and personal phone numbers for contacts even if that data was not visible on Facebook itself.

Facebook resolved the issue within 24 hours of being notified, and publicly disclosed the incident on its blog last Friday. There was a delay between the incident response and disclosure to give Facebook time to inform regulators and affected customers of the breach.

Six million is a big number in some contexts; but to be fair to Facebook, it represents only one half of one percent of the 1.1 billion Facebook users. When you consider how big the breach could have been, or the recent revelations alleging that the NSA has access to virtually all data from everywhere, the Facebook breach almost seems trivial.

Government monitoring aside, people still value privacy, and they have a reasonable expectation that if they configure their Facebook account not to disclose specific sensitive details, then that data will be protected. In this case--at least for the six million affected users--it was not.

Tripwire CTO Dwayne Melancon explains: "The Facebook breach highlights the 'weakest link' syndrome with information security. As the number of indirect connections and relationships between applications and data proliferate, it becomes easier for unintended disclosure of data to occur."

The Facebook glitch, according to Melancon, highlights the need for greater end-to-end awareness and validation of data security controls. Facebook--and companies trusted with sensitive data in general--should have strong security configuration management all the way from the servers through the applications and the user permissions assigned to the data.

While it's only peripherally related, do you know how many apps have permission to access or interact with your Facebook account? Go to the Privacy Settings and Tools in Facebook, and click Apps in the left pane. I think you'll be shocked.

I found that there are 207 apps connected to or associated with my Facebook account in some way. Each one has unique settings to control who can see information from it and what information the app has access to. That's 207 opportunities for me to miss something or somehow screw up the privacy controls and expose data I would rather not share with the general public.

It's a good idea to review the apps associated with your Facebook account. Remove the ones you don't use or don't even remember giving access to in the first place, and then check the permissions granted to the apps that are left to make sure they reflect the way you want your data to be treated.

There will always be a "weakest link." You can reduce the risk, though, by minimizing the number of companies and apps that have access to your personal information in the first place, and spending a little time to understand the associated privacy controls and make sure you've configured your data protection to the best of your ability.

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