Facebook Fixes Webcam Vulnerability After Receiving Tip

Photograph by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg introduced a video-calling feature to his site last year.

Facebook has patched a security vulnerability that would have allowed hackers to turn on users’ webcams without their knowledge and post the videos to their profiles.

The bug was discovered in July by two computer-security researchers in India, according to Fred Wolens, a 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 in cash for the information, they said. 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 and Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser — that encourages outsiders to hack their products in return for cash payouts. Some companies, notably Microsoft, have shunned “bug bounties” because they might wind up rewarding criminals.

An investigation conducted 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.”

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.

Bug bounties are to technology companies what “wanted” posters were to Wild West sheriffs: a call for the public’s help in identifying security risks, with the promise of rewards.

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’s PayPal, they said.

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