Emerging Threats & Countermeasures

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Information and Password Attacks on Social Networks:: An Argument for

Cryptography

Article  in  Journal of Information Technology Research · July 2017

DOI: 10.4018/JITR.2015010103

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Enrico Franchi

Università di Parma

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Agostino Poggi

Università di Parma

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Università di Parma

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Information Attacks on Online Social Networks

Enrico Franchi, Agostino Poggi and Michele Tomaiuolo
Department of Information Engineering, University of Parma, Italy

ABSTRACT
Online social networks have changed the way people interact, allowing them to stay in touch with their
acquaintances, reconnect with old friends, and establish new relationships with other people based on
hobbies, interests, and friendship circles. Unfortunately, the regrettable concurrence of the users’
carefree attitude in sharing information, the often sub-par security measures from the part of the system
operators and, eventually, the high value of the published information make online social networks an
interesting target for crackers and scammers alike. The information contained can be used to trigger
attacks to even more sensible targets and the ultimate goal of sociability shared by the users allows
sophisticated forms of social engineering inside the system. This work reviews some typical social
attacks that are conducted on social networking systems, carrying real-world examples of such
violations and analysing in particular the weakness of password mechanisms. It then presents some
solutions that could improve the overall security of the systems.

Keywords: social networks; information security; cryptography; password cracking; social engineering.

INTRODUCTION
If we have to chose among the innovations of the past decade just a single phenomenon because of its
outstanding social impact, that would be the diffusion of online social networks. While some social
networking services were already active in the nineties, the capillary diffusion and the sheer number of
people involved transformed online social networking in an unprecedented revolution only recently.
Online social networks have already modified the way people interact. They allow users to reconnect
with old friends, or to establish new connections with unknown people. In general, users are facilitated
in maintaining and developing the relationships with their acquaintances, on the basis of common
activities, interests, and contacts.
From a technological perspective, online social networks are mostly based on sets of web-based
services that allow people to present themselves through a profile, to establish connections with other
users in the system, and to publish resources. Moreover, these systems use common interests and the
natural transitivity of some human relationships to suggest new contacts with whom to establish a
connection. Although some of these aspects already appeared in other systems, online social networks
represent an unprecedented cultural phenomenon. It is mainly characterised by the unceasing flow of
information that users publish in such systems, and their relentless strife to increase the number of their
virtual friends and acquaintances.
Unfortunately, online social networks are becoming an interesting target for crackers and scammers
alike. In fact, many factors concur to attract malicious actions: (i) the users’ carefree attitude in sharing
information, (ii) the often sub-par security measures from the part of the system operators, and (iii) the
high value of the published information. In particular, the information available through social media
can be used to trigger attacks to even more sensible targets. Various forms of social engineering inside
the system, including sophisticated and long term attacks, may be facilitated by the general sense of
sociability shared by users, which per se is an intrinsic objective of social media. However, while the

only lasting solution to privacy and security issues would be increasing the users awareness, much can
and shall be done at the system level in order to protect the data with cryptography and to decrease the
impact of wrong choices and mistakes on the user’s part.
This work reviews some typical social attacks that are conducted on social networking systems,
carrying real-world examples of such violations and analysing in particular the weakness of password
mechanisms. It then presents some solutions that could improve the overall security of the systems.

SECURITY THREATS ASSOCIATED WITH SOCIAL MEDIA
Nowadays, online social networks involve people from the entire world, of any age and with any kind
of education. They also helped to increase computer usage among categories that previously showed
little interest for it (Stroud, 2008). The users of information systems have various types of security
requirements, including: confidentiality, integrity, accountability, availability and anonymity. The same
security requirements can be applied to social networking platforms, as well.
Unfortunately, while most users are aware that their profile and the information they publish is
essentially public, they usually strengthen their privacy settings only after problems arise and tend to
overlook the actual impact of the information they disclose (Stroud, 2008). Apparently harmless
information can be exploited, and the more information the attacker has, the more severe and
sophisticated the attack can be. For example, name, location and age can be used to connect a profile to
a real-world identity for more than half of the residents in the USA (Irani et al., 2011).
In fact, social networking platforms are susceptible to different types of attacks, targeting different
components, conducted from different domains, using different techniques. For better analysing these
attacks, it is useful to identify the main abstract components of a generic social networking platform,
corresponding to different functional aspects of those systems. Attackers can target each of the different
components, or they can target different levels, possibly with roughly the same logic. We identify four
main components:

1. The social networking component. It manages and protects access to the users’ personal profiles
and the social relationships among users.

2. The content management component. It manages and protects access to all user generated
content, including personal status updates, comments, links to other content, photos and
multimedia galleries.

3. The infrastructure services component. It provides the basic infrastructure services needed to
run the social networking platform, including storage and replication services for content and
profiles, information indexing and routing, management of users’ online presence.

4. The communication and transport component. It encapsulates basic inter-networking and ad-
hoc networking functionalities.

Moreover, we can distinguish two different kinds of attackers:

1. Intruders. An attack can be conducted by users accessing the system without proper
authorization, or with accounts created for conducting the attack, purposely.

2. Insiders. Also legitimate users or entities participating in the systems operations can assume
malicious behaviours. From the users point of view, malicious behaviour can also be attributed
to the service provider.

All the various classical kinds of security attacks may be adapted and applied to online social networks,
too. The most typical threats against OSNs include:

• Unauthorized Access. Users who have not been granted adequate permissions for accessing
some services and resources, may attempt to circumvent the security mechanisms and policies
of the system and gain unauthorised access. In a social networking platform, any user who has
access to some profiles and messages can harm their legitimate owners. The collection of
existing data is the basis of profiling attacks. These data may also supply some knowledge for
secondary data collection from a wide range of different sources, including other OSNs.
Remote access can also occur at system level. In this case the attacker may directly gain control
of all resources.

• Social engineering. In a social networking application, a common attack is to psychologically
manipulate a user into performing misguided actions. It is similar to a confidence trick or a
traditional fraud, but by means of computer-based communications and online social
networking, typically to gain access to confidential information. In a phishing scheme, the
attacker masquerades as a trustworthy entity to obtain the desired information. In most cases the
victim and the attacker never acknowledged each other directly in real life.

• Masquerading. When a rogue user disguises his identity and claims the identity of another user,
the former is said to be masquerading. Masquerading may be attempted by an attacker either
during a conversation or while registering his own profile, for deceiving other users or the
whole social networking platform. Sometimes, masquerading is the first step to gain access to
infrastructure services and resources to which the attacker is not entitled. Simple impersonation,
by cloning the victim’s profile from the same platform or by porting profile data from a different
platform, may easily lead the attacker to gain trust from the victim’s contacts. This way, it can
damage other users eventually deceived. Especially in communities where reputation is valued,
masquerading can also damage the user whose identity has been stolen. In fact, the attacker may
pretend to be another user in order to shift the blame for any liable action.

We will provide some examples and a discussion of these threats in the following subsections.
However, also other traditional security attacks can be conducted against OSNs, including:

• Denial of Service (DoS). The services and communications at the infrastructure level can be
disrupted by common denial of service attacks. Social networking platforms are also susceptible
to all the conventional denial of service attacks aimed at the underlying operating system or
communication protocols. In addition to attacking the whole infrastructure of a social
networking platform, users can also launch denial of service attacks against specific users,
especially in a distributed platform. For example, repeatedly sending messages or other spam
may place undue burden on the recipient users and their systems. Malicious users can also
intentionally distribute false or useless information to prevent other users from completing their
social activities.

• Repudiation. In general, repudiation occurs when a user, after having performed some action,
later denies that action having happened (at least under his responsibility). Repudiation can be
intentional or even accidental. It can also be the result of a misunderstanding, when users have a
different view of events. In any case it can generate important disputes. In a sense, nothing can
prevent a user from repudiating one of his actions. But a social networking platform can
eventually help resolving disputes by providing needed evidence, if it maintains a sufficiently
detailed log of events. For users who value their reputation, the availability of such evidence
may constitute a valid deterrent.

• Eavesdropping. The attempt to observe the flow and possibly the content of confidential
messages is one of the most classical security threats. Apart from reading the content of
messages, which may require cryptanalysis, an eavesdropper may gather useful information by
simply observing the pattern of messages and their recipients, for example inferring the type of
services being requested. To eavesdrop on other users, an attacker may also exploit the
infrastructure and communication services of the platform, e.g. through unauthorized access.

• Alteration. When a user signs up a social networking service, he starts exposing his profile and
content to the platform. An attacker may tamper with the profile and content data published by
the victim, with all the messages he communicates to other users and all data used on the
infrastructure services. Alteration can also be conducted by the service operator, which provides
the facilities for online social networking and may take control of published data. Alteration
may take the particular form of filtering, or censorship, when applied systematically for
removing undesired content from the OSN.

• Copy and Replay. Each action in a social network may be subject to copy and reply. In this type
of security threat, an attacker attempts to intercept some data and clone it, for retransmitting it
later. The interceptor may successfully copy and replay a message, a complete profile or any
other data. If those data are not associated with a signature and a timestamp, the repeated
reception of such copies may pass unnoticed and accepted as a legitimate action.

Types of information leaks from OSNs
According to Li, Li and Venkatasubramanian (2007), there are two types of privacy attacks in online
social networks:

1. Identity disclosure. It occurs when the adversary is able to determine the mapping from an
anonymous profile to a specific real-world entity (e.g. an individual).

2. Attribute disclosure. It occurs when an adversary is able to determine the value of a user
attribute that the user intended to stay private.

Moreover, attackers may gather data from:

1. A single social networking platform.
2. Multiple platforms, services or extension apps.

Sensible data may be obtained both through:

1. Direct access, either through an authorized service or through some breach, and
2. Attribute inference, based on public data available about a user’s contacts, and the correlation

usually existing among attributes of linked profiles.

Either about identity or attributes, privacy in online social networks is mostly intended as user-to-user
privacy: even when the relative settings are set correctly, so that no other user in the system can access
information not intended for his eyes, the system itself has full access to information. In fact, in most
online social networks, the system owners actually rely on such information to make a profit, for
example to improve the accuracy of target advertisement. Unfortunately, as long as they have full
access to the information – i.e., the information is available in the system in the clear – any security
issue or naivety results in privacy violations.

Even innocuous features can be easily become serious issues. For example, in order to promote the
service, Facebook had a public directory containing the names of the users that used to be presented
along with 10 random friends of theirs. Such feature allowed web-spiders to repeatedly request pages
from such directories and essentially discover the structure of the network. Subsequently, the number of
friends was reduced to 8 and the selection of friends became a deterministic function of the IP address
of the requester. However, even the greatly reduced information can still be used to violate privacy
(Bonneau, 2009).
Another very relevant problem is the amount of integration we expect from digital services. Online
social networks are relatively open system that can be enhanced by third party widgets and games,
usually called apps, which are embedded in the user’s pages and typically have access to some amount
of user information. Moreover, the users often want different services to interoperate for various
reasons, so that, for example, a new tweet is also notified to the Facebook friends or pictures stored on
Flickr are accessed by an online printing service. Eventually, the credentials of the online social
network can be used, in many cases, to log in a different system without needing a separate account.
The problem is that when any of these external services, systems or apps is violated, private
information can be stolen. For example, in June 2012, although the main Twitter servers were not
compromised, sensible data was nonetheless stolen from a third party widget, TweetGif (Robertson,
2012).
Similarly, we expect our mobile devices to interact cleverly with the online social networks. Service
providers create mobile applications, which, in turn, have some degree of access to the data stored on
the mobile device. Although such applications usually do not maliciously access user’s data for
purposes different from those stated, sometimes privacy is neglected. For example, the iPhone
LinkedIn App used to send all the user’s calendars to central LinkedIn servers, including phone
numbers, call details and passcodes, while only the relevant information should have been sent (Cheng,
2012).
Even when the social networking platform does not provide data directly, yet many supposedly private
properties may be inferred about a user. In fact, in social networks the attributes of users who share
some kind of link are often correlated. Zheleva and Getoor (2009) introduce different models of
attacks, to infer the hidden sensitive values on the basis of friendship links or public group membership
data. Specifically:

• Friend-aggregate. It looks at the sensitive attribute distribution amongst the friends of the
person under question.

• Collective classification. It aims at inferring class labels of linked objects together, instead of
classifying each instance independently of the rest. It iteratively uses inferred values for
connected private profiles, in addition to public ones.

• Flat-link. It deals with links by flattening the data and considering the adjacency matrix of the
graph. Each user has a list of features, corresponding to the size of the network. The public
profiles are used as a training set for the classifier.

• Blockmodelling. It is a stochastic model, supposing that users form natural clusters or blocks.
Then, their interactions can be explained by the blocks they belong to.

• Groupmate-link. In this model, groupmates are considered as friends to whom users are
implicitly linked. It assumes that each group is a clique of friends. Thus, it creates a friendship
link between users who belong to at least one group together, without representing the strength
of the link. The resulting network can then be analysed using one of the previous models.

• Group-based classification. It considers each group as a feature in a classifier, and sensitive

attributes are inferred from the groups a user belongs to.
• Basic. It calculates the overall marginal distribution of public data and uses it to infer sensitive

attributes of private profiles. This is the simplest model, which can be applied also in the
absence of relationship and group information.

Phishing and impersonation attacks
Social engineering has always been a major security threat to information systems. Two of the more
frequent kinds of social engineering attacks, i.e., pretexting and phishing, require some background
information, but such information was not always easy to obtain. In fact, some of the early social
engineering attacks actually involved going through company or people’s trash bins in order to find
scraps of paper containing relevant information. Nowadays, many interesting pieces of information are
publicly available in social networking systems or accessible only to victim’s friends at best (or at
worse, from the attacker’s perspective).
Traditional phishing consisted in sending electronic communications to a huge number of individuals
with the intent to have them disclose some relevant information, such as passwords or credit card
numbers. Since the large scale of such attacks, even if only few users actually trusted the
communication and disclosed information, it was nonetheless enough to make the attack profitable.
Such communications typically used very generic ways to address the victim and typically avoided any
specific detail so that the same message could be sent to all the recipients. Nowadays, people have been
instructed not to trust such generic messages, and other forms of phishing were created.
Spear phishing is a form of phishing where the attack is directed against a single individual and the
offending communication contains large amounts of information on the victim himself, in order to
convince him of the communication authenticity. This strategy is very effective both if the information
employed is public but the victim somewhat thinks it is not or if the attackers gained access to private
information by other means. Another popular form of phishing is cloning: a cloning attack requires an
original legitimate message that is subsequently tampered and sent the victims. These communications
look extremely authentic, but nonetheless they contain ways to direct the victims towards the attackers
website (where he is usually requested his credentials). Data-leaks offer an even more dangerous
variant: when the data leak becomes public, users expect their service providers to send them emails
notifying them to change their password. If such mails are instead well-crafted phishing emails, that
perhaps also use some private information about the user, many more people fall for the scam. The kind
of attack just described actually happened in the days immediately after the LinkedIn breach.
A serious weakness in many online services regards the “security questions”. In fact, while phishing
can be avoided by paying attention to the actual identity of the communications initiators, not much can
be done against “security questions” attacks. Some services allow the users to choose the security
questions so that the information required to answer it correctly is not publicly available, however, for
many other sites only a closed list of security questions is available. Researchers estimated that more
than 33% of the security questions involve names of relatives or friends and about 16% involve
personal preferences (“favorite something”). Popular security questions are also the name of a pet
(typically the current or first one), ZIP code or social security number (Rabkin, 2008). The victim in
online social networks often directly or indirectly divulges such pieces of information. Even apparently
safer information, such as social security numbers, may be guessed with high confidence from publicly
available data (Acquisti & Gross, 2009).
This kind of attacks is usually not directed towards online social networks, at least initially, but usually
targets email service providers, because, when the security question is answered correctly, most
systems send a password-reset email, and, consequently, controlling the main email account is
necessarily the first step. Similarly to spear phishing, security-question related attacks target only

specific individuals. Popular examples are the violation of Sarah Palin’s email account in 2008, using
information publicly available on Wikipedia and on official websites and, more recently, the attack
against Mat Honan. In the latter case, the tech journalist had his mail, iCloud and Twitter accounts
compromised after an elaborate chain of social attacks, during which also his mobile phone, tablet and
laptop have been remotely wiped (Honan, 2012).
Another typical attack on social networking systems is impersonation (identity theft), which can occur
either on a site where the victim already has a profile (profile cloning) or on different site (cross-site
profile cloning). In both cases, it is easy to convince the victim’s acquaintances to accept friendship
from the fake profile and subsequently to disclose confidential data. Experiments on the effectiveness
of impersonation have been conducted and the results show that such attacks mostly succeed (over 50%
success rate) even in the case of simple non-cross-profile cloning (Bilge et al., 2009).
When the attackers obtain credential for an online social network profile, additional attacks can be
performed. If the attackers are interested in keeping a private database containing the violated accounts
data, they can create a widget that copies the relevant resources or simply scrapes the web pages.
Moreover, they can try to use the same credential to attack the user’s accounts in other online services.
Since users do not often use different passwords for different accounts, this strategy is rather effective.
For example, during a period of roughly a week in June 2012, several services were compromised.
About a month after this so-called “breach week”, a number of Dropbox accounts have been hacked,
using the passwords stolen from the already compromised accounts (Agarwal, 2012).
Another possibility is using the violated account to accept friendships from profiles controlled by the
attackers. If the victim has already enough friends (on average, a Facebook user has 1000 friends), it is
not likely that he notices the new friendship, especially because the attackers can remove any
notification before the account owner actually sees that. Such friendship can be subsequently used as a
Trojan horse to access the user’s data even after the user changes the password and, moreover, is also
likely to attract friendship from the victim contacts, considering that mutual friendships usually
increases the confidence that an accounts should be trusted.
Controlling many profiles in a social network, either real ones or fake, can be used for spam purposes,
to influence opinions in general or simply to gather huge amounts of information. In fact, in order to
either access the data of most users in the network or deliver them a message appearing to come from a
friend, it is not necessary to control a large number of accounts, but it is sufficient to control accounts
that approximate a dominating set, i.e. a set D such that V = D friends(D)∪ , where V is the set of all
users in the network. Although computing a minimal dominating set is an NP-complete problem and
requires full knowledge of the networks, decent approximations can be made using greedy algorithms
and using only sampled knowledge.

THE WEAKNESS OF PASSWORDS
Most of the attacks we discussed so far are forms of social engineering. However, online social
networks are not, from a technical point of view, different from any other password-protected service:
if the passwords are not chosen judiciously and stored in a safe way, then the violation of accounts
becomes very easy. In fact, the analysis of available records about the robustness of users’ passwords,
as well as the security mechanisms and policies deployed in online systems, does not shape a
reassuring scenario. Table 1 summarizes some major password leaks suffered by social websites in
recent years.

Date Target site Size of leak Password storage

2012, June LinkedIn 6,5 million passwords SHA1, not salted

2012, June eHarmony 1,5 million passwords MD5, not salted

2012, June last.fm 2,5 million passwords MD5, not salted

2012, June League of Legends 32 million passwords MD5, not salted

2011 PlayStation Network 77 million accounts Hashed, not salted

2011 Sony Online Entertainment 25 million accounts Hashed, not salted

2009 Rockyou 32 million accounts Clear text

Table 1. Major password leaks

The “Breach Week”
The first week of June 2012 has earned the fame of “Breach Week”. Some million passwords were
stolen, in order, from LinkedIn, eHarmony and last.fm accounts. At least the first two incidents appear
correlated, as the passwords were published by the same user on a Russian forum about cracking. The
first file, leaked from the professional social site LinkedIn, totalled 6,5 million unique passwords. It is
not clear if other passwords were leaked, but the episode may have involved many more users. The
second file, leaked from the popular online dating site eHarmony, contained around 1,5 million
passwords. Finally, the internet radio platform last.fm notified all its users of a possible leak of
passwords, requesting to update their login information. Administrators announced ongoing
investigations. A published file accounts for at least 2,5 million passwords leaked form the radio
platform. But these episodes are not isolated. In fact, few days later, an alert appeared on the online
gaming platform League of Legends, notifying its 32 million users of a breach in some of its databases
(Merrill & Beck, 2012). The site administrators revealed that more than half of the passwords would
not resist to crack: “We compared encrypted password hashes and discovered that 11 passwords were
shared by over 10,000 players each… A double-digit percentage of individuals had the same password
as at least one other person.” Apart from revealing a widespread lack of awareness among users about
basic password security, the announcement may imply that passwords, like on LinkedIn and eHarmony,
were hashed but not salted (Yin, 2012).
Sony, in 2011, suffered from breaches in its PlayStation Network and Qriocity media streaming service.
The services were suspended for almost a month. Personal data from around 77 million accounts were
stolen, possibly including credit card numbers. During the same period, Sony Online Entertainment
announced that another breach led to leaking personal data from 25 million accounts. These breaches
compare to previous massive data leaks from TJX Companies, a fashion retail network, in 2007,
affecting over 45 million customers, including details about credit card and in some cases also social
security numbers and driver’s license numbers. In 2009, Heartland Payment Systems, currently the fifth
largest credit card processor in the United States and the 9th in the world, was affected by a breach
which costed something in the tens of million dollars. In 2005, a similar breach at CardSystems
Solutions, another payment card processor, jeopardized roughly 40 million credit and debit card
accounts (Vijayan, 2007).
One of the best known episodes, finally, is the breach suffered by Rockyou. After an SQL injection
attack in 2009, the intruders gained access to the website database, which included the full list of
unprotected clear text passwords of all 32 million users. In fact, those passwords are still readily

available over the BitTorrent network and are being used for dictionary attacks against other websites
(Cubrilovic, 2009).

Common password storing and cracking techniques
The safe management of passwords is an old problem. Various password storing mechanisms can be
considered.

1. Clear text. Though used in practice, the storage of passwords as clear text should out of the
question, as it offers no protection against intruders.

2. Encryption. The use of traditional encryption schemes is also discouraged. In fact, by
knowledge of the decryption key, all passwords may be subverted in a single shot. If an intruder
acquires the control of a machine, then the possibility of loosing a decryption key is quite
concrete.

3. Hashing. The solution adopted since decades in Unix systems is based on cryptographic one-
way functions, that can only be inverted by guessing the original clear text password (Morris &
Thompson, 1979). However, common hashing algorithms are often designed for efficiency,
which allows attackers to try many combinations in short time. Moreover, the effort to guess
users’ passwords can be reduced by attackers, if they generate the hash of a tentative password
and confront it with each one of the actual password hashes of the attacked system.

4. Salting. If some unique value (a salt) is added to each password before hashing it, the result is
unique for each user. If two users use the same password, two different hashes are obtained,
since that password is combined with two different salts. Then, in the database, both the hash
and the salt, in the clear, need to be stored. Thus, it is not possible to pre-compute hashes for all
popular and simple passwords, or for all combinations generated through brute force (Morris &
Thompson, 1979).

5. Password hashing algorithms. While common hashing algorithms are designed to be as fast and
efficient as possible, password hashing algorithms are designed to require a significant amount
of computational resources. Bcrypt, one of the best options among password hashing
algorithms, is based on the Blowfish algorithm and allows developers to decide the number of
iterations of its main function, possibly requiring various orders of magnitude more time than
generic hashing algorithms. The exact choice depends on the desired balance of password
security and needed computational resources for normal operation, in particular for handling the
regular number of logins (Provos & Mazieres, 1999).

Though password storing mechanisms are well known and documented, they are not always used in
existing systems, including some popular services, with large user bases. In fact, some lessons can be
learned about implemented mechanisms for password security in real cases.
A number of sites adopts techniques that are far from the best practices in this field. We will leave the
Rockyou case apart. LinkedIn, for example, avoided storing passwords in clear text, but used a
suboptimal algorithm for hashing. In fact, it used a good generic hashing algorithm (SHA-1, namely),
instead of a password hashing algorithm, like bcrypt. On moderate hardware, SHA-1 can be computed
over almost 200MBs of data per second, and MD5 over more than 300 MB of data per second (Dai,
2009). With these algorithms, a password of 6 lowercase alphanumeric characters can be easily
obtained through a brute force attack in less than a minute. And this is without using the potential of
parallel GPU computing, which can obtain results which are at least an order of magnitude better.
Exploiting four HD 5970 cards and some precalculations for the latest steps of MD5, the Whitepixel
tool may achieve 33.1 billions MD5 hash/s, on a system costing 2.700 $ at the end of 2010 (Bevand,

2010).
Another lesson that can be learned is that many websites simply skip password salting, even if it is a
well established technique (Morris & Thompson, 1979). LinkedIn and eHarmony are not isolated
examples, though emblematic given their huge user bases. For example, it took many years and
versions for the popular blogging platform WordPress to finally add salt to its user passwords, in 2008
at version 2.5.
In all those careless sites, simple attacks can be based on dictionaries of popular passwords, together
with mangling rules to obtain similar and derived passwords. Another possibility is to try all possible
combinations of lowercase letters, uppercase letters, digits and punctuation symbols, in a brute force
attack. Some tools, just like John the Ripper, can apply both attacks on a given list of hashed
passwords. Starting from a dictionary or a combinatorial engine, the obtained password is hashed and
then compared to all available hashes, possibly leading to the discovery of one or more users’
passwords after a single hash operation. The effectiveness of the operation is greatly simplified by the
fact that a single algorithm is applied against all passwords, without salt or additional parameters.
Moreover, if passwords are not salted, the attacks can be made even more effective by calculating in
advance the hashes of all possible passwords, up to a certain length. Obviously, taking into account the
needed disk space, this approach is feasible only for very short passwords. But techniques are available
to trade time for space, thus reducing the needed disk space but requiring more hash calculations at
runtime. Among such techniques, some are based on the so-called rainbow tables. Oechslin (2003)
shows how a previous technique, described by Hellman and refined by Rivest, could be further
improved, halving the number of calculations during cryptanalysis.
Those methods are all based on the iterative calculation of a hash function and a reduction function, in
an alternating sequence, starting from a given password and repeating the cycle some thousands of
times, depending on the desired balance between space and runtime processing time. For a given chain,
only the starting password and the final hash are stored, while intermediate results are discarded. The
number of chains to store depends on the desired success probability in decrypting a given hashed
password. In the original paper, the method is applied to Windows LanManager passwords. With a
space of 1.4GB for rainbow tables (and thanks to the weakness of the old LanManager scheme) a
success rate of 99.9% can be achieved.
Given a certain hash, finding the corresponding password requires finding a rainbow chain in the table.
If the original hash is not found, then one or more cycle of the reduction function and hash function are
applied and then the search is repeated. Finally, when the relevant rainbow chain is found, starting from
the first password in the chain, all calculations are repeated, till the password associated with the
original hash is found.

ANALYSING SOME MILLION USERS’ PASSWORDS
Unfortunately, users do not seem to choose passwords with care. A first glimpse of this fact comes from
the security alert issued after the League of Legends intrusion (Merrill & Beck, 2012). In that alert, the
system administrators pointed out that a high percentage of users had the same password of another
user. The reported data of 10000 different users sharing the same 11 passwords, is a glaring evidence.
So, in order to confirm the impression that users choose very weak passwords, we decided to analyse
the publicly available list of leaked hashes from LinkedIn.

Figure 1. Dependence of the number cracked by using both dictionary (labeled as “Basic”, “Full” and
“RockYou”) and brute force attacks, as functions of cracking time. In the result of the “RockYou”
approach it is particularly evident how the “brute-force” attack starts after exhausting the
“dictionary” attack.

The first step is to crack the hashes to obtain the original passwords. Since the hashing procedure is
essentially irreversible, the typical strategy is to “guess” which string generated the hash. One
possibility is to brute-force attack the hash, i.e., simply hashing every possible string and comparing it
with the desired hash. Such strategy is very slow and ineffective in practice whereas dictionary attacks
are much more effective. In a dictionary attack the strings are not chosen at random, but are extracted
from a dictionary of common words. Additionally, the words from the dictionary are mangled
simulating the usual strategies users employ to make passwords harder to guess (e.g., substitute
numbers for alphabetic characters, appending values to the end or the beginning of the words).
Although more techniques exist, we decided to start cracking the passwords using the popular
password cracker “John the Ripper”, which performs both brute force and dictionary attacks with
mangling rules and we reported our results in Figure 1. All the attempts were performed on a Core2
Duo laptop at 2.40 MHz. Our first attempt (“Basic” in Figure 1) used a small dictionary of around 3500
common password that is distributed with John itself and we also enabled simple mangling rules for
generating common derivative passwords, in two hours the program was able to recover more than a
million (1.05 M) LinkedIn users’ passwords. The second attempt (“Full” in Figure 1) used a much
larger dictionary, containing a few million words from more than 20 languages, also available from the
program website. The larger dictionary provides some marginal gain.
Eventually, we fed John with the database of 32 million passwords that were stolen from the RockYou

website in 2009 and subsequently published on the web. The results significantly improved. In two
hours around 1.5 million passwords were revealed, 44% more than those obtained with the first
attempts. In this case, the first million passwords were obtained in less than five minutes.
The most likely explanation is that the LinkedIn password set has a large overlap with the RockYou
dataset, which, in turn, confirms the idea that many users tend to reuse passwords and are not extremely
creative in deciding their own passwords. Moreover, in this case, of the 2 million passwords we
cracked in 24 hours starting with the RockYou password dictionary, more than 25% are not longer than
6 characters and that less than 15% are longer than 8 characters. Moreover, almost the 30% consists
only of alphabetic lowercase characters and another 30% consists of alphanumeric characters, with no
special characters, and, eventually, almost 1 password over 10 consists of only digits. Roughly 12% of
the passwords end with the digit 1, 200.000 passwords end with 123 and about half as many with 1234.
Years are also frequently included (e.g., numbers from 1975 to 2011, while 2012 is significantly less
popular and “future” years are rare). The most popular base word that constitutes the password is a
variation of the name of the website (“linked”, “linkedin” and “link”) and “love” and “password” still
made it in the top 10. Analyses of other leaks of passwords show that variations on the service name are
popular and that “password” is an evergreen (Dragusin, 2012).
In fact, the passwords that have not been cracked during our 24h timeframe are expected to be much
stronger (otherwise they would have been cracked as easily) and the fact that only 1/3 of the password
was cracked is somewhat encouraging. It is also interesting that, using the RockYou dataset as
dictionary, the number of password cracked (N(p)) depends on the length of the passwords (L(p))
according to N(p) = A e-BL(p) where A = 3.15×106 and B = -0.786.
The last consideration regards the nature of the dataset: repeated passwords were not included, i.e., in
the original system more than one user could have the same passwords, so that 2 million passwords
could account for far more than 2 million of users, and, considering the remarks of the operators of
League of Legends, they probably do.

HOW TO MAKE ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS MORE SECURE?
The huge amount of information and the features-over-security approach of online social networks is a
serious security problem, especially considering that some million of vulnerable accounts remain a big
security threat for other systems as well, in the sense that, considering high password reuse, the more
services are violated, the more likely it is that accounts on other systems are violated as well.
Many solutions can be used to increase security. While the best long-term solution to the security
problems is increasing the users’ awareness, this may be unpractical because of the huge amount of
people involved and their perception to be in a relatively safe environment, where friends are just few
clicks away. However, there are many solutions that providers and software developers can use in order
to improve the overall security.
For, example, most browsers and email clients offer some features to automatically detect phishing and
one of the major weaknesses, i.e., security questions, can be fixed either improving the quality of the
questions themselves (Rabkin, 2008) or, better, sending reset messages via SMS, which at least would
require the attacker to physically access the victim’s mobile phone.
Zhou, Pei and Luk (2008) suggest some anonymization techniques to prevent privacy attacks in social
networks. In particular, they suggest two different approaches, based respectively on generalization and
perturbation:

1. Clustering. Vertices and edges are clustered into groups, so that a subgraph can be abstracted
into a supervertex. This way, details about individuals are hidden.

2. Graph modification. Some vertices and edges of the graph are modified, by insertion or

deletion. Such modifications may be applied using an optimization approach, randomly, or
greedily, to match privacy requirements.

Felt & Evans (2008) suggest to protect data of social networks, especially from exposure to third-party
developers. They present a privacy-by-proxy design, which mask data presented to external
applications, using placeholders instead of actual values. However, it is not clear how resistant this
simple approach is against de-anonymization techniques.
Li et al. (2007) discuss such de-anonymization techniques, under the conditions of k-anonymity. Under
those conditions, each node is undistinguishable from other k-1 nodes, with regards to attributes which
may potentially identify an individual. This group of node constitutes a class of equivalence. While k-
anonymity can protect against identity disclosure, it fails to protect against attribute disclosure in the
general case. Another discussed notion of privacy is the l-diversity, which requires each class of
equivalence to contain at least l different values for a sensitive attribute. Authors propose instead t-
closeness as a measure of privacy, which requires that the distribution of an attribute in a class of
equivalence is close enough to that of the whole network, being less than a threshold t.
Weak passwords remain a major problem. Although, some service providers are either increasing
strictness of the conditions to accept a password as valid, experience shows that “lazy” users always
circumvent syntactical conditions (Yan et al., 2004). For example, in order to make passwords more
secure the providers started to require that at least one character should be a number. As a consequence,
many users simply appended a single digit to their weak password, without neither substantially
increasing the password security as a whole nor realising they are failing to do so.
Part of the problem is that, when choosing passwords, users are facing the choice between easy to
remember, easy to type passwords and secure passwords. As expected, users tend to choose the former.
Even if they are instructed with good techniques to build secure and memorable passwords (e.g., pass-
phrases), the large amount of services they subscribe creates the problem to remember which password
is needed for which account and, consequently, users tend to reuse their passwords over and over, with
terrible security implications. Also when longer pass-phrases are chosen, users prefer easier to
remember sequences, which make sense to them. But this motive also makes them vulnerable to more
advanced dictionary attacks, which gather phrases from popular books and online sources (Goodin,
2013).
Many solutions exist to improve password security, i.e., password managers and biometric
identification. However, these solutions have serious drawbacks. Biometric identification is
cumbersome because it may require specialised hardware and is often perceived as a privacy violation
on its own right. Additionally, biometric data, when used for authentication, are roughly equivalent to
strong and long passwords, which are hard to guess but which, on the other hand, are impossible to
change. This way, if a service requiring biometric data at login is broken, or behaves in a rogue way,
then the security based on those biometric data, on all sites, is made ineffective or completely broken.
Password managers, on the other hand, create a single point of failure that, if violated, compromises the
security of every single account the user had. In fact, this is not just a remote hypothesis (Slattery,
2011).
All considered, we think that one of the best strategies to improve the security of online social networks
would be using strong asymmetric cryptography to protect all the data stored inside the system.
Decrypting data protected with state-of-the-art cryptography is very hard. The system can be designed
so that data travels only in encrypted format and is decrypted only on the client machine, so that, in
essence no secret is revealed to a third party during regular usage. However, regular asymmetric
cryptography has high computational costs when messages have to be sent to a restricted audience that
varies its members during time, as in the case of a “group” or “circle” of friends (Canetti et al., 1999).

The solution we favour is using flexible attribute-based encryption, such as CP-ABE (Bethencourt et
al., 2007). With attribute-based encryption, it is possible to create subordinate key-pairs associated with
arbitrary attributes. Such attributes can indicate belonging to some group or time-dependent access
rights. The system operators and other users have not necessarily access to the data so that, even if the
system is compromised, the data remains secure.
The main problem is that, without remotely storing the private key, it becomes difficult to access the
online social network from multiple devices, such as from home and from the office. In the specific
case of mobile-centric online social networks, it becomes possible to keep the private key on the
mobile device without impairing functionality. Backup and remote wipe procedures are widely
implemented and they can be used to solve most issues regarding losing the physical device.
Another positive effect of using flexible cryptography, such as attribute-based encryption, is that it
becomes possible to temporarily grant rights to another device from the main mobile device where the
private key is stored. In fact, this essentially allows using the mobile device as a non-intrusive hardware
key without actually having to copy the private key around.
The essential problem with encrypting data is that usually the system operators want to access such
data in order to improve target advertisement, that is their main source of revenue. Moreover,
information quality, flow experience and trust in OSNs users’ loyalty are correlated; thus, system
operators have to pay close attention to them, to retain and increase their customers (Suki, 2012). So,
although technically feasible, an end-to-end encryption strategy would require either an entirely
different, although similarly profitable, business model or a less expensive architecture, typically
obtained moving from centralized to distributed.
There are two main categories of distributed social networks: federated and peer-to-peer (P2P). In a
federated system multiple entities cooperate to provide the service and each of them provides access to
the whole system to a subset of the total users. Each user can choose the federated provider that he
prefers, for example because he considers it worthier of trust. Service providers can also use high
security and privacy standards as a way to attract more users and, perhaps even publish the code open
source to increase confidence in their criteria. Direct access to the source code is possibly one of best
way for user to discover whether their provider is using inadequate security standards, and, in general
more competition and no lock-in are positive factors for increasing quality.
On the other hand, in a P2P system, every participant is both a user and a system provider at the same
time. However, purely P2P system can have issues with data availability, i.e., post from very badly
connected users can be difficult to obtain. Consequently P2P system may introduce “super-nodes” with
a role akin to that of a federated provider. The distinction between the two categories is in practice
blurred. The main advantage of P2P over federated approaches is that in the P2P scenario the code runs
on the user machine and, potentially, no information is transmitted outside with the explicit user
content. Moreover, trust management and negotiation mechanisms among users can be used in order to
improve the availability of the data even without introducing super-nodes (Tomaiuolo, Poggi &
Franchi, 2013).
Regardless of the actual form of distribution, the operative costs are essentially shared among multiple
entities, and, in the case of P2P the required resources are already provided by the users, so that most
costs are already covered.
Specifically in the field of social networking, various systems are being developed on the basis of peer-
to-peer communications and DHT indexing, including Safebook (Cutillo, Molva & Strufe, 2009),
PeerSoN (Bodriagov & Buchegger, 2013) and Blogracy (Franchi, Poggi & Tomaiuolo, 2013). Safebook
is based on a network of socially close peers, defined Matryoshka. Peers in a user’s Matryoshka are
trusted and support the user by anonymizing communications and replicating content and profile
information. PeerSoN proposes a Broadcast Encryption protocol, where each recipient has a different

key, which can be used to decrypt data received by the broadcaster. Blogracy, on the other hand, adopts
an Attribute-Based Encryption protocol for protecting access to users’ content. It allows each user to
assign credentials to various groups of followers, for accessing protected content.
In conclusion, it should be noted that cryptography does not outright prevent “mass” phishing, however
it can make much more troublesome to discover enough data on users to conduct credible spear-
phishing attacks. Cloning phishing attacks are also less likely to succeed in federated networks, since
different federated providers would typically use different standards, and become meaningless in pure
P2P scenarios. Similarly, impersonation attacks cannot be directly avoided, but cryptography still
makes it harder to gather enough information to successfully conduct the attack. Another partial
defence against impersonation is that the same cryptographic keys that are used to guarantee
confidentiality can be used to guarantee authenticity, i.e., any message and any piece of information
can be guaranteed to come from the owner of the key: a clone could be easily detected.
Security questions are used in order to allow users to change their password in case it is stolen.
Depending on how the system is designed, there may not be a password to reset altogether. In these
cases, a similar problem is losing the private key. Although, in theory, backups should avoid the
problem, a failsafe mechanism may still be useful; however, because of the way the system works, it
should probably be something completely different, hopefully not vulnerable to the classic problems of
“security questions”. Moreover, in P2P system there is not even the concept of a central authority that
could “reset” any password or secret for the user and web of trust or similar strategies should be
employed.
Essentially, since all the pieces of information are encrypted, data published in online social networks
cannot be used to gather information to violate other systems. Moreover, even if the online social
network services were violated, the attackers would not access any data in clear.

CONCLUSION
In this work, we reviewed some typical social attacks that are conducted specifically on social
networking systems. In fact, along with the large number of legitimate users, these systems are also
attracting the interest of crackers and scammers, who may seek information for triggering attacks to
even more sensible targets. Real-world examples of such violations are already available. Actually,
many factors concur to attract malicious actions: (i) the users’ carefree attitude in sharing information,
(ii) the often inadequate security measures from the part of the system operators, and (iii) the high
value of the published information.
While the only lasting solution to privacy and security issues would be increasing the users’ awareness,
much can and shall be done at the system level in order to protect the data with cryptography and to
decrease the impact of wrong choices and mistakes on the user’s part.
Security is a complex issue, especially considering that most online social network users are not willing
to be proactively engaged in the process. As a consequence, the system designer should pay additional
care so that most interactions have high security standards regardless of the user understanding of the
problem. However, for most online social networks providers’ security does not appear to be a priority,
possibly because it is a feature that does not help to “sell” the product. Unfortunately, every system that
is exploited makes every other system a bit less secure, because information leaks make information
attacks more likely to succeed. Moreover, security is going to be an increasingly important problem in
the future.
Therefore, we think that there is an expanding niche for smaller service providers willing to invest in
security and that they can actually enter the market using decentralised architectures in order to
decrease the costs of running the services. Such services could be designed from scratch in order to
provide good security standards, possibly using attribute-based encryption.

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https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276461922

Reading and summarizing a research article: 

Authors’ last names (year) conducted a study about ________________________. The participants were/the setting was ___________________________. (New paragraph) The findings were _____________________________. Discussion. (Possibly a new paragraph) The authors suggested _____________________. Discussion.

Students should fill in the blanks with their own words. To copy directly from the article fails to show comprehension and considered plagiarism.

To “fill in the blanks”, a student should read the journal article and pay specific attention to:

Sentence #1- Authors’ last names (year) conducted a study about _________________.

·

Read the Abstract; this will give an overview of the study’s (article’s) purpose.

· Read the entire article without trying to summarize it.

· Go back and read the Literature Review or Background section of the article. Toward the end of the section, the authors should identify gaps in the existing literature and tell the reader how the current study will fill that gap. The authors will also state their hypothesis (purpose) at the end of this section.

·

Section #2 – The participants were/the setting was ___________________________.

· Read the Methods section of the paper. In this section, the authors will describe how the data was collected, who was included in the sample, and any instruments used.

· A reader might want to consider sample size, demographic characteristics, or any interesting protocol.

· It is not necessary to report every fact (i.e., 35% of the participants were male, 71%)

Section #3 – The findings were _____________________________.

· Read the Findings section of the article.

· Some statistics may be confusing. Pay attention to key words such as “increased”, “decreased”, “improved”, and “reduced”.

· “No change” may also be considered a significant finding.

· Next, read the Discussion section. The authors will present the findings in general terms. Section #4 – The authors suggested _____________________.

· Read the Discussion section and look for comments that the authors made about the intervention or program such as “Did it work?” or “Should it be continued?”.

· Look for the author’s critique of why the study did or did not produce results. Did anything unexpected influence the findings?

· The author may suggest a future line of research or “next steps” to improve the body of knowledge.

Additional Considerations:

· A literature review is a summary of what research has been completed in a topic area; it should be summarized in your own words.

· Read the entire article first and then go back and take notes. Jot down notes in your own words. This increases comprehension as well as decreases the likelihood of plagiarism.

· The review is written in third person; no “I” or “you”.

· Not every detail or fact needs to be reported. A reader will obtain a copy of the article if more information is needed.

· Write the literature review in the past tense; the research has already been completed.

· The article cannot “do”, “find”, or “say” anything. The authors are the people who conducted the study.

· The above format is a guideline. It may be necessary to change the verbs or to expand an idea.

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