Mar 21, 2019 04:57 PM EDT
Organizations can store account passwords securely by scrambling them with a cryptographic process known as hashing before saving them to their servers. This way, even if someone compromises those passwords, they won't be able to read them, and a computer would find it difficult-even functionally impossible-to unscramble them. As a prominent company with billions of users, Facebook knows that it would be a jackpot for hackers, and invests heavily to avoid the liability and embarrassment of security mishaps. Unfortunately, though, one open window negates all the padlocks, bolts, and booby traps money can buy.
"As part of a routine security review in January, we found that some user passwords were being stored in a readable format within our internal data storage systems," Pedro Canahuati, Facebook's vice president of engineering, security, and privacy wrote in a statement. "Our login systems are designed to mask passwords using techniques that make them unreadable. To be clear, these passwords were never visible to anyone outside of Facebook and we have found no evidence to date that anyone internally abused or improperly accessed them."
Canahuati says that Facebook has now corrected the password logging bug, and that the company will notify hundreds of millions of Facebook Lite users, tens of millions of Facebook users, and tens of thousands of Instagram users that their passwords may have been exposed. Facebook does not plan to reset those users' passwords.
For such a prominent target, Facebook has had relatively few technical security failures, and in this case appears not to have been compromised. But the company's track record was severely marred by a breach in September, in which attackers stole extensive data from 30 million users by compromising their account access tokens-authentication markers generated when a user logs in.
That breach indirectly helped Facebook discover the trove of plaintext passwords and the bugs that caused them to be there; the incident motivated a security review that caught the lapse. "In the course of our review, we have been looking at the ways we store certain other categories of information -like access tokens-and have fixed problems as we've discovered them," according to Canahuati.
"It's good that they're being proactive," says Lukasz Olejnik, an independent cybersecurity adviser and research associate at the Center for Technology and Global Affairs at Oxford University. "But this is a big deal. It seems like they found the issue during an audit, so maybe their past mistakes plus new privacy regulations are making these checks more standard."
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