The risks of identity and information theft occurring through social networking sites like Facebook are very real and users are warned to be aware of the dangers of allowing strangers to gain access to their online profiles.
Compiled from a random snapshot of Facebook users, new research from Sophos shows that 41% of users, more than two in five, will divulge personal information – such as email address, date of birth and phone number – to a complete stranger, greatly increasing their susceptibility to ID theft.
To coincide with the research, Sophos has also published a best-practice user guide for behaving securely on Facebook, which reportedly signs up 100,000 new users every day.
The Sophos Facebook ID Probe involved creating a fabricated Facebook profile before sending out friend requests* to individuals chosen at random from across the globe. To conduct the experiment, Sophos set up a profile page for 'Freddi Staur' (an anagram of 'ID Fraudster'), a small green plastic frog who divulged minimal personal information about himself. Sophos then sent out 200 friend requests to observe how many people would respond, and how much personal information could be gleaned from the respondents.
"Freddi encouraged 82 users to hand over their personal details on a plate," says Brett Myroff, CEO of master Sophos distributor, NetXactics. "While accepting friend requests is unlikely to result directly in theft, it is an enabler, giving cyber criminals many of the building blocks they need to spoof identities, to gain access to online user accounts, or potentially, to infiltrate their employers' computer networks."
The full results of the Sophos Facebook ID Probe are as follows:
* 87 of the 200 Facebook users contacted responded to Freddi, with 82 leaking personal information (41 percent of those approached)
* 72 percent of respondents divulged one or more email addresses
* 84 percent of respondents listed their full date of birth
* 87 percent of respondents provided details about their education or workplace
* 78 percent of respondents listed their current address or location
* 23 percent of respondents listed their current phone number
* 26 percent of respondents provided their instant messaging screen name.
In the majority of cases, Freddi was able to gain access to respondents' photos of family and friends, information about likes/dislikes, hobbies, employer details and other personal facts.
In addition, many users also disclosed the names of their spouses or partners, several included their complete résumés, while one user even divulged his mother's maiden name – information often requested by websites in order to retrieve account details.
What is concerning is how easy it was for Freddi to go about his business, obtaining enough information to create phishing emails or malware specifically targeted at individual users or businesses, to guess users' passwords, impersonate them or even stalk them, explains Myroff.
While most people wouldn't give out their details to a stranger in the street, or respond to a spam email, several of the users Freddi contacted went so far as to make him one of their “top friends”. “People should understand that despite occurring within Facebook, this type of communication is still unsolicited and users should employ the same basic precautions – such as not responding in any way – to prevent exposure to wrongdoers,” Myroff says.
As well as the successful friend requests, a number of users unwittingly enabled Freddi to gain access to their profile information simply by sending response messages such as "Who are you?" and "Do I know you?" back to his Facebook inbox. Sophos experts note that users' profiles can be protected from such exposure by adjusting the privacy controls within their Facebook account settings.
While Facebook's privacy features go far beyond those of many competing social networking sites, it is ultimately about the human factor – carelessness and being preoccupied with having more Facebook friends than their peers could have a serious impact on business security, if accessed in the workplace, Myroff adds.
Some businesses may already be considering blocking Facebook for productivity reasons but, equally, other companies will see business benefits in this type of interaction, hence it's important that the site is used sensibly and securely.
In addition to these findings, Sophos "poked" a further 100 random Facebook users to see if this form of communication would elicit the same response and encourage people to let Freddi access their details. However, just eight people responded, with only five revealing personal information.
"Curiously, while so many users were perfectly willing to make friends with Freddi – despite knowing nothing about him – it appears that few wanted to engage in casual poking, suggesting that, true to the site's ethos, Facebook users are primarily interested in commitment and friendship," Myroff says.