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Facebook's 2FA bug lands social media giant in hot water

At Black Hat USA 2017, Facebook CSO Alex Stamos said “As a community we tend to punish people who implement imperfect solutions in an imperfect world.”

Now, Facebook has found itself on the receiving end of such punishment after users who had enabled two-factor authentication reported receiving non-security-related SMS notifications on their phones.

News reports of the issue led several security experts and privacy advocates to slam Facebook for leveraging two-factor authentication numbers for what many viewed as Facebook spam. Critics assumed the Facebook 2FA notifications, which alerted users about friends’ activity, were intentional and part of Facebook’s larger effort to improve engagement on the site, which has been steadily losing users lately. However, in a statement last week acknowledging the issue, Stamos said this was not the case.

“It was not our intention to send non-security-related SMS notifications to these phone numbers, and I am sorry for any inconvenience these messages might have caused,” Stamos wrote. “To reiterate, this was not an intentional decision; this was a bug.”

It’s unclear how a bug led the Facebook 2FA system to be used for engagement notification, but the unwanted texts weren’t the only issue; when users responded to Facebook’s notifications to request the company stop texting them, those messages were automatically posted to users’ Facebook pages. Stamos said this was an unintended side effect caused by an older feature.

“For years, before the ubiquity of smartphones, we supported posting to Facebook via text message, but this feature is less useful these days,” Stamos wrote in his statement. “As a result, we are working to deprecate this functionality soon.”

The Facebook 2FA bug did more than rattle users of the social media site – it led to a notable public feud on Twitter. Matthew Green, a cryptography expert and professor at Johns Hopkins University, was one of several people in the infosec community to sharply criticize Facebook for its misuse of 2FA phone numbers and argued that sending unwanted texts to users would turn people away from an important security feature.

However, Alec Muffett, infosec consultant and developer of the Unix password cracker tool “Crack,” took issue with Green’s argument and the critical media coverage of Facebook’s 2FA bug, which he claimed was having a more negative effect on 2FA adoption than the bug itself.

At one point during the Twitter feud between Muffett and Green, Stamos himself weighed in with the following reply to Green:

“Look, it was a real problem. You guys, honestly, overreacted a bit,” Stamos Tweeted. “The media covered the overreaction without question, because it fed into emotionally satisfying pre-conceived notions of FB. Can we just admit that this could have been better handled by all involved?”

I, for one, cannot admit that. If this episode had occured in a vacuum, then Stamos might have a point. But it didn’t. First, Facebook isn’t some middling tech company; it’s a giant, flush with money and filled with skilled people like Stamos who have a stated mission to provide first-class security and privacy protection. I don’t think it’s unfair to hold such a company to a higher standard in this case.

Also, Stamos complains about “emotionally satisfying pre-conceived notions” of Facebook as if the company doesn’t have a well-earned reputation of privacy violations and questionable practices over the years. To ignore that extensive history in coverage of the Facebook 2FA bug would be absurd.

This is not to argue that this was, as many first believed, a deliberate effort to send user engagement notifications. If Stamos says it was a bug, then that’s good enough for me. But any bug that inadvertently sends text spam to 2FA users is troubling, and there are other factors that make this episode unsettling. There are reports that this bug has existed for quite some time, and it’s difficult to believe that among Facebook’s massive user base, not a single person contacted Facebook to alert them to the situation, and no one among Facebook’s 25,000 employees noticed text notifications were being sent to 2FA numbers.

I don’t expect Facebook to perfect, but I expect it to be better. And Stamos is right: Facebook could have handled this better. And if there’s been damage done to the adoption of 2FA because of this incident, then it starts with his company and not the media coverage of it.

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