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Facebook Patches Webcam Vulnerability After Receiving Hacker Tip

December 28, 2012

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Facebook Inc. (FB:US) has patched a security vulnerability that would have allowed hackers to turn on users’ webcams without their knowledge and post videos to their profiles.

The bug was discovered in July by two computer-security researchers in India, according to Fred Wolens, spokesman for Facebook. Aditya Gupta and Subho Halder, founders of a consulting firm called XY Security, reported their findings to Facebook, which paid them $2,500 for the information, Bloomberg.com reported on its Tech Blog. Facebook seems to have deemed this particular bug as “serious” because the company paid five times its usual price, the two researchers said.

Facebook is one of a few technology companies -- along with Google Inc. (GOOG:US) and Mozilla Corp., maker of the Firefox browser -- encouraging outsiders to hack into their products in return for payouts. Some companies, notably Microsoft Corp. (MSFT:US), have shunned “bug bounties” because they might wind up rewarding criminals.

An investigation by Facebook when it fixed the webcam hole found that no users appeared to be affected, Wolens said.

“This vulnerability, like many others we provide a bounty for, was only theoretical, and we have seen no evidence that it has been exploited in the wild,” Wolens wrote in an e-mail. “Essentially, several things would need to go wrong -- a user would need to be tricked into visiting a malicious page and clicking to activate their camera, and then after some time period, tricked into clicking again to stop/publish the video.”

Bounty Reward

Many companies choose to pay researchers such as XY Security for bugs because the alternative can be much worse. Such information can fetch high prices on the black market from criminals who try to find ways to shake down Internet surfers, costing site administrators more in the end.

Facebook’s “peeping Tom” bug could have been exploited on either Windows or Mac computers, the researchers said. The Facebook vulnerability found by XY Security was related to how the site verified requests to record and post webcam video, they said. People who had previously granted Facebook’s site access to their webcams would have been vulnerable, he said.

Facebook, Google and Mozilla have paid researchers more than $2 million combined through their bounty programs, according to the companies. Google has paid as much as $60,000 (plus a free laptop) for information about weaknesses in its Chrome Web browser, and Facebook has expanded its program to cover not only the Facebook site but also the company’s corporate network.

Before reporting the webcam bug to Facebook, Gupta and Halder had been building a reputation in the tech industry as professional bug-bounty hunters. The researchers, who are in their early-20s, had previously reported software vulnerabilities to Apple, Google, Microsoft and EBay Inc. (EBAY:US)’s PayPal, they said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan Robertson in San Francisco at jrobertson40@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom Giles at tgiles5@bloomberg.net


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