Facebook Fumbles More Passwords as Security Missteps Continue

NEWS ANALYSIS: Facebook revises the impact of its March 2019 password disclosure security incident to include "tens of millions" of Instagram users, highlighting the continued challenges the social media giant faces to keep user information secure.

Facebook privacy

Sometimes the full impact of a data security incident isn't known when it is first disclosed. That's the case with Facebook, which on March 21 first publicly admitted that it had inadvertently left hundreds of millions of user passwords exposed—it is now revising the impact upward.

While hundreds of millions of user passwords is already a large number, the initial disclosure minimized the impact of the issue for Facebook's Instagram service, noting that only "tens of thousands" of Instagram users were impacted. On April 18, Facebook revised its disclosure on the incident in which user information was left unencrypted and accessible on Facebook's own internal systems.

"We now estimate that this issue impacted millions of Instagram users," Facebook’s revised advisory states. "We will be notifying these users as we did the others." 

While Facebook has revised the impact from the March data breach, it has not changed any of the other pertinent facts in the security incident. According to Facebook, the user information was never improperly accessed or abused, even though it was all unencrypted and potentially available for Facebook's internal staff to see on their own systems.

Email Harvesting

The disclosure of the larger impact from the March incident for Instagram users came a day after yet another security failure admission by Facebook. On April 17, Facebook admitted that it had "unintentionally" collected email contacts from 1.5 million users without the users knowing about it.

"Earlier this month we stopped offering email password verification as an option for people verifying their account when signing up for Facebook for the first time," Facebook wrote in a statement sent to media. "When we looked into the steps people were going through to verify their accounts we found that in some cases people's email contacts were also unintentionally uploaded to Facebook when they created their account."

According to Facebook, it has now fixed the underlying issue that led to contacts being updated. Additionally, Facebook stated that users can also review and manage the contacts they share with Facebook in their settings.

Analysis

The two latest disclosures coming in rapid succession underscore a long and seemingly unending string of security and privacy failures at Facebook. 

The issue of revised impact is common, however, and shouldn't necessarily be taken as an indication of some kind of attempt by Facebook to hide the truth. In any security incident investigation, there are always multiple layers of due diligence as different sources of information and forensic analysis are compared. For example, in September 2018, Facebook reported a data breach that involved attackers gaining access to user access tokens. Initially, Facebook reported that some 50 million Facebook users were impacted but then revised the impact down to 30 million in October 2018 after additional investigation.

Facebook has also been the subject of intense scrutiny over data misuse from a variety of incidents. The unauthorized contact loading is obviously a privacy concern, and there is no reason why user contacts should be loaded without permission. On top of the data security and privacy issues, Facebook has also suffered a string of service outages in recent weeks, further adding to the social media giant's woes.

Despite all the challenges it faces, users rely on Facebook and, though there might be some impact in terms of brand perception, the majority of Facebook users will likely remain with the site, even as different security and privacy issues are disclosed. 

For users, the only thing that can be done is to remain vigilant and periodically check settings to see what is being shared. For access, changing passwords periodically and using two-factor authentication are also good best practices.

There is little doubt that Facebook in the near future will have some other security incident disclosure, and likely there will be more privacy-related disclosures too. With a platform as large as Facebook, the challenge however isn't just about making sure there are no data security incidents, but rather how fast and how responsibly those incidents can be dealt with to minimize user risk.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.