A team of researchers have built a malicious Facebook program an experiment to demonstrate the possible dangers of social networking applications. The experiment shows the ease with which attackers could dupe large number of users into downloading a seemingly harmless application that actually performs a clandestine attack that can cripple a Web site.
Facebook and other Web sites such as MySpace, Bebo and Google are creating technology platforms that let third-party developers build applications to run on those sites. The concept has opened the door to innovation, but also prompted worries over how those applications could be used for spam or steal personal data.
The researchers developed an application called “Photo of the Day,” which serves up a new National Geographic photo daily. But in the background, every time the application is clicked, it sends a 600 K-byte HTTP request for images to a victim’s Web site.
Those requests, as well as those images, are not seen by someone using Photo of the Day, which the researchers have termed a “Facebot” application. The effect is a flood of traffic to the victim’s Web site, known as a denial-of-service attack.
The researchers uploaded their application to Facebook in January and told a few colleagues about it. Even without advertising or other promotion, close to 1,000 people installed it in their profiles, much to the researchers’ surprise.
They then monitored traffic on a Web site they set up for Photo of the Day to attack. If those traffic figures were applied to Facebook applications that have a million or more users, they estimated a victim’s Web site could be bombarded by as much as 23 M bits per second of traffic, or 248 G bytes of unwanted data per day.