In short: The data breach revealed several weeks ago and thought to have affected as many as 29 million Facebook users appears to have been the work of spammers rather than a state-sponsored incident, The Wall Street Journal reports. That's according to unnamed individuals said to be close to the ongoing internal investigation. The sources claim that the intention of the attack appears to have been tied to an attempt to spam affected users with malicious advertisements. What's more, this is reportedly not the first time the bad actors in question have been spotted by Facebook's security detail. The group has been noted in the past posing as an advertising agency on the social media site and its subsidiary Instagram, although only Facebook appears to have been breached for the time being.
Background: Initially, the security breach was thought to have affected as many as 50 million users. Caused by a bug in the site's "View As" profile features, it effectively allowed easy access to Facebook access tokens that, in turn, allowed access to a given user's profile on the site. The tokens are used as a means to let users stay logged in rather than having to re-input their password. Cooperation with the FBI and other agencies in the investigation is ongoing but the company was able to determine that 15 million of the affected users had their names and contact details. Meanwhile, a further 14 million users were impacted more deeply and had a wider array of sensitive information taken ranging from gender and relationship status to their current city of residence, device models, and religious affiliation.
Prior to the incident, Facebook has already been under severe scrutiny for its handling of user data and, in particular, vulnerabilities that have allowed that information to be leeched from the site. The largest of those was the Cambridge Analytica scandal that became widely known back in March and which breached the data of over 80 million users. In that case, users who either knowingly or inadvertently allowed Cambridge Analytica to access their own personal data also gave access to that of their Facebook friends due to a vulnerability in how Facebook allowed access at the time. The global debacle resulted in multiple appearances for CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other executives before government bodies, including Congress. Meanwhile, the company has also been doing damage control regard to reports of fake news and political meddling by foreign entities, among other things.
Impact: All of that has placed the ordinarily outgoing and innovative tech and social media giant on the defensive, interrupting planned launches of products such as a new smart speaker and forcing the company to restructure its service and site. There had been some speculation and concerns about whether or not the latest scandal was perpetrated by a foreign government or similarly sponsored hackers. So reports that it was a group of spammers instead could provide some small measure of relief if the newly leaked information is accurate.