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Facebook Introduces HTTPS Opt-In for Users, Impacts App Developers


In an article posted today on the Facebook Developer Blog, Facebook announced that they would be offering users the option to switch their Facebook experience to HTTPS-only, which would force all Facebook page loads to be routed over SSL.

According to the blog entry, this feature would be opt-in, and canvas application developers would need to provide an SSL url for the “Secure Canvas URL”.

If a user who has opted into the SSL-only version of Facebook attempts to access a Facebook Application that doesn’t have a Secure Canvas URL set, the user will evidently be shown a message (which will likely be confusing and scary, not because Facebook will purposefully make it so, but because most users don’t really understand SSL) that will give them the option to switch from HTTPS to HTTP. From the post:

If you do not provide a secure Canvas URL, we will display a confirmation page to let HTTPS users switch to HTTP and continue to your app.

This currently affects CANVAS apps only – not application tabs – although that may very well change once Facebook pushes the IFRAME version of tabs out some time in Q1.

HTTPS is slower and more server intense than HTTP, and it’s one more cost/timeline issue that has to be factored in. For some clients, I set up the hosting environment (which would include DNS, SSL, etc) – for others, their IT department provisions web space and handles DNS, and they often require a mountain of paperwork and a week to process.

For the latter scenario, the cost of the certificate is negligible, but for a highly-trafficked app, the increase in server load could have serious financial impact. It could mean the difference between needing one server and several.

For smaller companies, stepping up to SSL would mean buying a certificate and potentially paying extra for the dedicated IP address it will need, and if the app takes off, a much heftier hosting bill for running everything over SSL.

If the above would actually, truly improve the safety of the users in some significant way, I’d probably still be on-board.

Security is something I take very seriously, and in 2010, Firesheep showed the world how easy it was to hijack a user’s Facebook session and essentially pwn their account because the session data was being transmitted unencrypted and was sniffable over public wifi. To be fair, it wasn’t just Facebook that was affected, but if you’re logging into websites on an unencrypted public wifi, odds are your email accounts and everything else are at risk too.

That said, this seems like it will give naive users a false sense of security and not actually provide that much value for the effort involved by the app developers.

“Oh, this application must be safe – I’m using HTTPS, and the S stands for *secure*!”

Phishing, rogue apps and malware are already horrendous problems on social media websites, Facebook especially. I would much rather see Facebook (and others) improve their session handling before going in this direction. Reputable companies who are collecting any kind of PII are already running data submission over HTTPS, and non-reputable companies aren’t going to become more honest just by forcing them to encrypt the data they’re mining from your profile.

The net result is a lot of extra work for developers and companies for not a lot of benefit to not a lot of users, with the side effect of confusing people into thinking that SSL = trustworthy, or that a non-SSL app is malicious and trying to eat their souls.

IMHO, the much bigger threat to Facebook users is their own poor judgment on what to click on. Social engineering rules social networks, and no amount of encryption is going to fix that. As the fabulous shirt from Jinx says “there is no patch for human stupidity”.

Until people start being more critical of what they’re clicking on and what apps they’re allowing access to their profile, they’ve got a lot more to worry about than SSL. It’s the same false sense of security that users running antivirus programs often suffer from.

“I don’t need to worry about what I click on – I’m running antivirus! My virus definitions are up to date, so I am safe and protected and nothing can harm me.”

In 2008, Symantec had to write new virus signatures every 20 seconds to keep up with the onslaught of malware that was released. This was increased to every 8 seconds by 2009. [Source: Gray Hat Hacking The Ethical Hackers Handbook, 3rd Edition]

To prove my point, I’ve created FB Profile Spy. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s a better-security-through-humiliation project, similar to my better-behavior-through-humiliation project It’s completely safe – and not even hooked up to the Facebook API at all (but of course please feel free to use NoScript and check it out thoroughly before interacting with the links. I have nothing to hide.) Click through and “allow” the “app”. I need to tighten up the javascript slideshow lecture at the end and I need to sync up the layout with the new profile design, but it’s coming along.

What do you think? Am I just being a whine-ass lazy developer? Am I being a slacker security pundit? Let me know in the comments.

NOTE: This article first appeared on FBMHell.Com.

About the author


I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me at, or read more...

By snipe
Snipe.Net Geeky, sweary things.

About Me

I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me at, or read more...

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