Securing Facebook: With a little help from his 800 million friends
Joe Sullivan, CSO of Facebook, talks about spam, fake accounts, cooperating with Google and Twitter, and much more
By Lauren Gibbons Paul
March 05, 2012 — CSO —
The eyes of the online world are on Joe Sullivan.
As the CSO of Facebook, Sullivan is without a doubt one of the most visible security chiefs in the business. He must mitigate myriad security and privacy risks not only for Facebook's employees and corporate systems, but also for the social network's 800 million members.
Sullivan, 44, joined Facebook in 2008. He moved to the private sector 10 years ago to focus on security, and before that he was a federal prosecutor for eight years. His legal background has come in handy of late, as Facebook has sued several people for misusing the service.
CSO contributor Lauren Gibbons Paul talked to Sullivan about the challenges of managing security on a rapidly evolving social network.
CSO: With all the publicity about privacy and security regarding Facebook, what do you regard as the biggest threats?
Joe Sullivan: I think the challenge with being at Facebook is that it's always about trust. People need to feel secure when they use Facebook. When it first came along, people were not comfortable putting their photo and real name on the Internet. But that's the way Facebook works—it's your real name and real identity interacting with real people in your life. If [members] experience something that erodes their trust in that experience, they're not going to come back.
[So] we have to invest really heavily in security. That's not just someone getting access to your account directly, but your experience of someone else's account getting compromised. If your friend gets compromised, you feel it. It undermines your trust in your experience.
The network effort can be used for bad as well as good. That's why we've invested heavily in security for a long time. No individual can be on top of all the different risks every day—it has to be orchestrated across a bunch of different groups.
I'm always concerned about the risk of a compromised account. There are high-profile individuals, companies and governments that use Facebook as a way to communicate. That means we need to make sure they're comfortable coming on to Facebook and feel secure in using it. We've seen situations where high-profile accounts get compromised. That is guaranteed to draw attention and undermine trust.
CSO: What is your strategy for dealing with misappropriated credentials?
Sullivan: We created some great technology modeling the behavior of a real account. It's machine learning. We have a large group of engineers working on this all the time.
Six hundred thousand times a day, someone tries to log into account using [stolen login information]. We catch them and block them.
I had a meeting with someone from a vendor earlier today, and he told me he tried to log into his Facebook account on the hotel computer [and was presented with a security challenge question]. He was coming from a public computer, and he had the right password. [But] public computer plus different state, that triggered social verification process. Some services would just look at that type of activity as a risky log-in. We do something different, which is social verification. We presented him with profile photos of his friends [and had him pick their names].
We've gotten better at this. Using machine learning, we can figure out who are the friends you interact with the most on Facebook.