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Can Spam-Swamped Ping Survive Without Facebook?

By Richard Adhikari MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Sep 3, 2010 12:17 PM PT

Facebook has reportedly shut off access to its friend search feature for subscribers to Apple's newly introduced Ping social music service.

Can Spam-Swamped Ping Survive Without Facebook?

The social networking apparently giant did this by denying Ping access to its application programming interfaces (APIs), AllThingsD reported.

Talks between Apple and Facebook to give Ping subscribers the ability to search for Facebook friends also using Ping reportedly broke down before Apple's service was launched Wednesday. The two are said to be holding talks again.

Neither Facebook nor Apple responded to requests for comment by press time.

Facebook Zings Ping

The Facebook APIs that let other services, such as Ping, search for friends on the social networking giant's site are normally open unless other services expect to make heavy use of them. If they do, they have to sign an agreement with Facebook.

The first round of negotiations between Apple and Facebook fell through because Cupertino found Facebook's demands onerous, AllThingsD reported.

However, the Ping site continued to let subscribers search for friends on Facebook until Cupertino was denied access to the social networking giant's APIs.

Apple and Facebook have resumed talks on letting Ping subscribers find their friends on Facebook, AllThingsD reported.

Fear and Loathing

Perhaps Facebook's "onerous" demands were based on fears about a new influx of spam from the Ping service. Prior to Ping's launch, Facebook had been hit by a wave of Apple-related spam, Graham Cluley, Sophos senior technology consultant, wrote in his blog. Often, the attacks will post bogus messages on the victim's Wall advertising free iPads or iPhones.

"Facebook is definitely having huge challenges fighting the spam and scams," Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor at Sophos, pointed out. "It's looking closely at every link that comes into its service to see if it has malicious content. At this point anything that might introduce more nightmares to Facebook isn't welcome."

That fear, if it exists, is perhaps well founded -- within 24 hours of its launch on Wednesday, Ping was hit by a wave of comment spam.

The Fame Monster

It's been well-known for quite awhile that social networking sites are very attractive to spammers, scammers and malware authors. So how could Apple not have beefed up its security to keep them out of Ping?

"It's shocking to me that Apple would launch a service that allows arbitrary user input and not filter it properly," Sophos' Wisniewski told MacNewsWorld.

Apple does filter other things -- for example, curse words sent to its sites are replaced with asterisks, Wisniewski pointed out.

"So Apple has the technology at the back end to filter things out, but apparently it had the hubris to think it didn't have to do so for Ping," Wisniewski said. "About one third of the messages on Lady Gaga's profile on Ping are spam."

Perhaps there's another explanation for Apple's seeming carelessness.

"Apple hasn't really had to deal with as many security issues as other vendors because it had security by obscurity," Laura DiDio, principal at ITIC, told MacNewsWorld. "Now that it's growing in popularity, it's getting a taste of what the social networking sites have had to deal with."

Still, there's no excuse for Cupertino to have failed to take security concerns into account.

"This is something that shouldn't have been overlooked, and there's no way for Apple to say it's not their fault," DiDio said.

Goodwill Is a Tenuous Thing

It wasn't so long ago that Apple was at the center of a public relations storm over poor reception on the iPhone 4, an issue the media dubbed "Antennagate." That forced Cupertino to offer a free iPhone 4 case to anyone who bought an iPhone 4 through September.

Could Apple be heading for another PR mess over its contretemps with Facebook?

"As a user of both the iPhone and iPad, I find this inability to find my Facebook friends an annoyance and an inconvenience," ITIC's DiDio told MacNewsWorld. "Apple can live off the hump of its goodwill for a certain amount of time, but that goodwill will clearly disintegrate and disappear pretty quickly if Apple doesn't address this issue."

The Biggest Loser

It's not clear whether there will be any real victor if Apple and Facebook fail to settle their differences.

Facebook has more than 500,000,000 users, but Apple has 160 million iTunes users, all of whom could also sign on to Ping.

For the moment, though, the advantage seems to rest with Facebook.

"The biggest groups on Ping seem to have about 125,000 followers, which implies that, right now, there may be a total of 200,000 users on Ping," Sophos' Wisniewski said. "While iTunes has 160 million subscribers, they're only potential Ping members for now."

Facebook may decide to sit back and see whether or not Ping is successful before closing a deal with Apple, Wisniewski opined.

"If I were Facebook, I'd look at the adoption rate of Ping," Wisniewski explained. "If it looks that lots of people are signing up, then it'll be to Facebook's advantage to work with Ping, but if the 200,000 early subscribers grow to only 1 million over six months, I don't know that Facebook would care that much."

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