Sometime this last Christmas, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan noticed strange things happening in Tunisia. Thanks to The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal we now know what those strange things were: A country’s terrifying attempt to steal its citizens’ Facebook passwords.
The reason for the mass password theft appears to be censorship. Tunisian citizens, bloggers, and activists were using Facebook as a tool to quickly spread information regarding what was going on in the country as civil unrest loomed. But unless Facebook figured out what was happening—and soon—that tool was at risk:
After more than ten days of intensive investigation and study, Facebook’s security team realised something very, very bad was going on. The country’s Internet service providers were running a malicious piece of code that was recording users’ login information when they went to sites like Facebook.
By January 5, it was clear that an entire country’s worth of passwords were in the process of being stolen right in the midst of the greatest political upheaval in two decades.
The Facebook team worked quickly to find solutions that would secure the affected users’ information while attempting to remain distant from the political issues:
This was simply a hack that required a technical response. “At its core, from our standpoint, it’s a security issue around passwords and making sure that we protect the integrity of passwords and accounts,” [Sullivan]said. “It was very much a black and white security issue and less of a political issue.”
In the end, Facebook managed to implement some security tweaks which put a stop to the password theft and minimized the damage caused by passwords which were already stolen. You can read the details of how the social networking site’s security team managed to accomplish this task over at The Atlantic and I highly recommend that you do. The tale is an incredibly captivating one—and this time, Facebook is the hero. [The Atlantic]
Illustration by Alex Hoyt/The Atlantic