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Secure Application Development on Facebook

This document provides a basic outline/best practice for developing secure applications on the Facebook platform. Facebook applications are web, desktop, or mobile applications that make use of the Facebook API to integrate tightly with the social network experience.

This document is designed for the Facebook developer, but it can also be used as a reference for non-technical readers. Depending on the reader’s level of technical understanding of security vulnerability classes and the Facebook platform, sections of the document may be skimmed or skipped.

Authors

  • Himanshu Dwivedi (www.isecpartners.com)
  • Ryan McGeehan (Facebook)

Overview of the Facebook Platform

The Facebook application developer has many choices in how they integrate into the Facebook platform with their application. It is important to understand the basic elements of the platform before diving into the details of Facebook application security, as each method of integration has different security properties. If you are already familiar with the Facebook platform components, feel free to skip this section. There are two main categories of Facebook applications: Platform applications and Facebook Connect applications. Both types of application can use Facebook markup and scripting languages, as well as a REST client to access the Facebook API. Facebook Connect applications communicate with Facebook through crossdomain communication channels. Platform applications communicate directly with the Facebook servers. The following terms will be referenced when discussing Facebook applications:

Application canvas

The application canvas is the page on Facebook servers where an application lives. Application canvas pages are accessed through the apps.facebook.com domain. For example, the application canvas URL for a fictional game called “Goatworld” might look like this: http://apps.facebook.com/goatworldgame/ . The application canvas page will either be Facebook markup language or an external site hosted within an IFRAME.

Canvas callback URL

The canvas callback URL is the file or directory on the developer’s application servers where the application files are hosted. Facebook proxies the content from the canvas callback URL to the application canvas page.

Post-Authorize callback URL

The callback URL is a page on the developer’s servers which is pinged by Facebook each time a user authorizes the application. Platform applications Platform applications run in a sandbox and are accessed through the application canvas page. There are two types of platform applications that use different methods for sandboxing, including FBML and IFRAME.

FBML

Applications written using the Facebook markup and scripting languages instead of the traditional HTML and JavaScript. When a user accesses the application canvas page, the Facebook proxy pulls down the FBML from the application servers and translates it into HTML before rendering in the user’s browser. It follows that the application code runs in the apps.facebook.com domain. These applications can access Facebook user data directly using FBML, but may also make calls to the Facebook REST API servers.

IFRAME

Applications that are written using traditional web development languages such as HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and run on the developer’s application servers in an IFRAME hosted in the Facebook application canvas page. These applications cannot use FBML directly, so they tend to rely on components from Facebook Connect, such as XFBML and the JavaScript client library, as well as the Facebook REST API.

Facebook Connect Applications

Facebook Connect applications do not run directly on the Facebook platform, but can access a set of powerful APIs to integrate closely with Facebook. Facebook Connect applications can be web, mobile or desktop applications. Connect applications use XFBML tags (which are similar to FBML) as well as the JavaScript client library, the Facebook PHP client or a Facebook REST client in any language.

Security Goals

Important Rules to Follow

Common Vulnerabilities and Protections