A few weeks ago I attended Github’s CodeConf in San Francisco. While there, I got to meet quite a few really accomplished technologists (hackers) and discuss a variety of projects, processes, programming methods and more. One of the most interesting moments for me came over lunch while talking to the CTO of a very well known blog which clocks in over 5 million unique visitors a month. Like most sites of its type, it receives almost 100% of its revenue from ads. According to him, one of the largest (new) challenges they were facing was that advertisers are beginning to buy ads targeting the blog’s fans from Facebook, not the blog itself. In other words, to get at the blog’s users, advertisers were paying Facebook less money to directly market to the blog’s fans on Facebook.The more I think about it, the more I think this is a major problem for almost every ad supported site out there, and it could be the pitch that Facebook is using to bolster its insane valuations. Right now, there are probably no less than a dozen Googlers being kept up at night worrying over this very problem, not to mention the admen at hundreds of highly trafficked blogs and other internet properties. After all, if I can immediately pitch my competing product to your customers without paying you a dime, I’ve got a huge advantage, you’ve got a huge problem, and Facebook has an unbelievably great strategic position.Maybe you’re reading this and thinking “yeah that’s old news” and it probably is to many, but having never worked at an ad supported organization, I’d certainly never thought about it before. I’ve also never heard it articulated online, and I’m wondering how many organizations even realize this is happening. Note there is a two-fold risk here: ad supported properties risk losing ad revenue to Facebook, and they risk exposing their customers to competition. If you’re an advertiser, you’d much rather know that you’re reaching out to all 10,000 fans of Blog X with the stats to show you who clicked, etc., vs. an anonymous 100,000 impressions. Note that even if a Blog chose not to have a Facebook page to attempt to combat this kind of thing, Facebook can still harvest those users who “like” the Blog in their profile.Before, I used to think that the benefits of a Facebook presence for an organization outweighed the downsides, but now I’m not so sure, particularly for ad-supported businesses. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
Christmas – a Time of Giving
Normally around Christmas people are focused on giving. Giving to family, friends, maybe even coworkers. Some give time to charities, some make donations to others. One of my annual traditions for Christmas is giving to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital liberties organization that fights for freedom of speech online, privacy, and other causes that are generally too technical to garner attention from other organizations.
This year I’m adding a very similar organization to my annual Christmas list, Software Freedom Law Center (Hi Aaron!), which similarly advocates for issues that increasingly plague and impact our lives, whether we understand them or not.With all the buzz going on right now about Wikileaks maybe you’ve thought about these issues a little more than normal.
Depending on your understanding of the issue or political orientation, it might be hard to believe, but freedom of speech online is a relatively fragile thing. Maybe it’s because technology appears to be finite and controllable, maybe it’s because online speech travels much faster and is easier to consume, but it seems that governments and governing bodies tend to naturally flock towards the idea of speech regulation of technical mediums.Groups like the Software Freedom Law Center and the Electronic Frontier Foundation work to preserve freedoms on our behalf.
When I say “freedom of speech online” or “freedom online”, we’re also talking about fighting against overly broad software patents, violators of the GPL, warrantless wiretapping of online communications, and a whole bunch of other issues that may seem only tangentially related to speech, but do impact your voice online.In addition to the work they do, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with and knowing a few individuals from both organizations, and they’re great people as well! So Merry Christmas, and if you’re looking for a great gift idea or a cause to support, check out both groups.
An Open Letter to Mint.com: Stop storing my bank credentials!
A lot has changed over the last few years. It seems like forever ago, and yet, it was only in 2005 that AJAX sprang forth and ushered in the buzzword of Web 2.0. And it’s great – rich applications that are delivered quickly and efficiently allow me to do things online that I never thought possible. And yet, there’s a dark side to the Web 2.0 craze for APIs and tools and importing and exporting data, and that is that we’ve taught our users to embrace man-in-the-middle attacks. Every time I see a website asking me for my Facebook password I cringe, but nothing pales in comparison to the nightmare that is Mint.com.
I love Mint.com. They have spectacular visual design, a great product, an entertaining and informative blog, and a great iPhone app. I know tons of people who love Mint.com, and yet, when surveying my digital life with a critical eye, I know of no greater security risk than Mint.com. It’s still astounding to me that Mint could grow from a small startup to being acquired by Intuit in the space of a few years and essentially retain unlimited liability by storing user’s logins and passwords to their entire financial lives. Yikes.
If I were turned to the dark side, I would immediately attempt to hit Mint for their millions of users credentials which provide me completely unfettered access to their accounts, most of which are not FDIC insured. This means that when someone hacks Mint, they’ll be able to pull out all of my money, transfer it, etc., and I’ll be responsible because from the financial institution’s perspective they aren’t liable for me entrusting my credentials to a third party. Sure, Mint encrypts their password database, but somewhere that password is known or stored. It has to be because they have to use my unencrypted credentials to login. Sure, there are a bunch of ways they could monitor this access and mitigate risk, but at the end of the day there are usernames and passwords floating away.
There is simply no technical reason the financials institutions out there can’t work with Mint and every other API providers/consumers out there can’t implement an OAuth authentication solution. For the nontechnical of us who are reading this, an OAuth solution is essentially a token based method of authentication. A key based authentication mechanism doesn’t necessitate handing over your username and password to a third party, instead, you grant a key (and depending on the API, limited access) to Mint which can then login and grab the information you need. If Mint gets compromised, your financial details might be stolen, but at least they can’t access the upstream account with the same type of access. In fact, this is what I was really hoping would come out from the Intuit acquisition: for Quicken you used to have your financial institution give you a separate login or key for Quicken specifically. To be clear: this is originally the financial institution’s problem. They should be providing OAuth based services for Mint and others to consume. However, this has now become Mint’s problem to address. Also, hindsight is 20-20. What may have started out as a great application for a developer to track his personal finances with an acceptable risk quotient has ballooned into one of the largest and best avenues for tracking finances in the world.
The simple fact is that today, when you change your financial institution credentials, Mint breaks, which means they’re scraping the content from financial institutions. Financial institutions are in on it too – it should be easy to see that a large percentage of their traffic is coming from one domain. Even those sites that use a two-factor “security questions” approach are accessed via Mint by saving all possible security questions! Financial institutions could easily block Mint by adding CAPTCHAs to their login protocols, but since I personally know several users who have changed banks to use Mint, my guess is there’s sufficient pressure to maintain Mint’s access. Some might say that I’m being overly paranoid because we’re used to saving usernames and passwords on our local machines and while it is true that from a direct comparison perspective Mint probably has the security edge over my Macbook Pro, from a risk management perspective it’s quite a different story. All of a sudden it pays to hire a team of evil programmers for a million bucks to gain access to Mint’s millions of users. Consider too the fact that most people re-use a single username or password as much as possible – this means cracking a lower security database (a web forum, etc.) can leapfrog access into those same user’s Mint accounts. The less we’re using usernames and passwords for services, the better. What’s the solution? I think a three pronged approach should be considered by any modern technical service that holds data of value:
- Institutions should provide rich APIs in the first place and aggressively prevent screen scraping.
- APIs should clearly segregate between “read only” and “read and write” access levels. Mint.com can “read” my financial data but can’t “write” and pull money out of my account for example. API access could further be segmented to only allow access to pieces of data (e.g. financial sums only and not transactions, or both, etc.)
- APIs should use account credentials for access, but instead should be key or token based.
This might sound complicated, but in practice it’s very straightforward. I simply login to authorize a request made by an application (anyone authorized a Netflix device recently?) and that’s it. In an increasingly networked world, application service providers bear increased responsibility to provide safe computing to users. The old standards of storing usernames and passwords within applications need to change to reflect a different risk model. This means both providers (financial institutions) and consumers (Mint.com) of data. I want to use Mint and recommend it to others so I’m hoping that they can bring their clout to bear and work things out with financial institutions to solve this problem.