A Practical Attack to De-Anonymize Social Network Users

Gilbert Wondracek, Thorsten Holz, Engin Kirda, Christopher Kruegel

IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy ("Oakland"), Berkeley, CA, May 2010


Social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Xing have been reporting exponential growth rates and have millions of registered users. In this paper, we introduce a novel de-anonymization attack that exploits group membership information that is available on social networking sites. More precisely, we show that information about the group memberships of a user (i.e., the groups of a social network to which a user belongs) is sufficient to uniquely identify this person, or, at least, to significantly reduce the set of possible candidates. That is, rather than tracking a user’s browser as with cookies, it is possible to track a person. To determine the group membership of a user, we leverage well-known web browser history stealing attacks. Thus, whenever a social network user visits a malicious website, this website can launch our de-anonymization attack and learn the identity of its visitors.

The implications of our attack are manifold, since it requires a low effort and has the potential to affect millions of social networking users. We perform both a theoretical analysis and empirical measurements to demonstrate the feasibility of our attack against Xing, a medium-sized social network with more than eight million members that is mainly used for business relationships. Furthermore, we explored other, larger social networks and performed experiments that suggest that users of Facebook and LinkedIn are equally vulnerable.


Tags: de-anonymization, Social Networks