Public data snatched from 170 million Facebook profiles

By Hibah Yousuf, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Public but personal details from more than 170 million Facebook profiles were harvested from the site and made available in a downloadable torrent file this week.

Ron Bowes, a security researcher and blogger, wrote a software program to scan Facebook's public directory of profiles. Users can choose to opt out of that directory, but most stick with Facebook's default setting and allow their name and a few other personal details to publicly searchable.

"Once I have the name and URL of a user, I can view, by default, their picture, friends, information about them, and some other details," Bowes wrote on his blog at SkullSecurity.org.

Bowes' exploit did not involve breaching users' privacy settings or obtaining any passwords, and all of the information he gathered is openly available on Facebook's site. However, the sheer size of his data haul is significant: Bowes' chunky 2.8 gigabyte file includes names and URLs for 171 million Facebook profiles. Facebook has an active user population of 500 million.

Bowes created a torrent for his cache, making it available through sites such as Pirate Bay. He also did some preliminary data mining: Facebook's most-common user name is "jsmith," and the most popular first names on the site are Michael, John and David, Bowes found.

While Bowes called the information's easy accessibility "a scary privacy issue," Facebook downplayed his exploit.

"This information already exists in Google, Bing, other search engines, as well as on Facebook. No private data is available or has been compromised," Facebook said in a statement. "Similar to the white pages of the phone book, this is the information available to enable people to find each other, which is the reason people join Facebook."

The company reiterated that its privacy controls allow users to adjust their settings so that they do not appear in a search on Facebook or through search engines.

Though the information Bowes culled is public, his approach still violated Facebook's terms of service. The site prohibits collecting user information "through automated means," which includes harvesting scripts like the one Bowes created.

Facebook is typically aggressive in cracking down on policy violators. The company said Wednesday that it deleted all applications created by Pencake, a top outside developer whose widgets were used by 45 million Facebook members, because Pencake broke Facebook's rules.

But Bowes doesn't seem concerned. He's already planning the next phase of his Facebook data dive. Bandwidth constraints stopped him from gathering users' public photos and other openly available details, this time around.

"So far, I have only indexed the searchable users, not their friends," he wrote in his blog. "I'd like to tackle that in the future, though, so if anybody has any bandwidth they'd like to donate, all I need is an ssh account and Nmap installed." To top of page

Frontline troops push for solar energy
The U.S. Marines are testing renewable energy technologies like solar to reduce costs and casualties associated with fossil fuels. Play
25 Best Places to find rich singles
Looking for Mr. or Ms. Moneybags? Hunt down the perfect mate in these wealthy cities, which are brimming with unattached professionals. More
Fun festivals: Twins to mustard to pirates!
You'll see double in Twinsburg, Ohio, and Ketchup lovers should beware in Middleton, WI. Here's some of the best and strangest town festivals. Play
Index Last Change % Change
Dow 17,804.80 26.65 0.15%
Nasdaq 4,765.38 16.98 0.36%
S&P 500 2,070.65 9.42 0.46%
Treasuries 2.18 -0.03 -1.27%
Data as of 6:36pm ET
Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 17.62 0.09 0.51%
Apple Inc 111.78 -0.87 -0.77%
General Electric Co 25.62 0.48 1.91%
Intel Corp 36.37 -0.65 -1.76%
Microsoft Corp 47.66 0.14 0.29%
Data as of Dec 19

Sections

New York Magazine reporter Jessica Pressler, who has been caught up in controversy this past week, will not be moving on to a new job at Bloomberg News. More

Investors beware: These 5 global crises are likely to rattle the stock market and world economy. More

Forums in dark corners of the web sell the kinds of hacks that befell Sony. More

Unilever sued Hampton Creek over its egg-free mayonnaise spread Just Mayo. But the company behind Best Foods and Hellman's mayonnaise has now dropped the lawsuit. More

The income of the top 1% jumped significantly in 2012, far outpacing inflation. Not only did this group make a larger share of the country's income, their share of total taxes also jumped from 35% to 38%. More

Approved - cowleys
hyousuf.scowley

Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.