Olivia B. Waxman
Time – TechLand
At the beginning of every school year, most college students receive the same warning email or lecture from campus safety: don’t leave your laptop unattended because someone could steal it. But they don’t warn you that a friend could also log into your Facebook account and start posting things.
Hack My Facebook, a site that lets you mock hack your own Facebook account to fool your friends, won a $500 prize from AddThis for going viral at PennApps this past weekend (September 14-16), which claims to be the largest student-run hackathon in the country.
This year, 320 students participated in the 48-hour hackathon. Running on 10 hours of sleep each the entire weekend, three University of Michigan students and comedy lovers Raj Vir, 20, Shiva Kilaru, 19, and David Fontenot, 19, created a site from scratch that allows you to log in using your Facebook account, and then choose a type of jokey post to be shared from your account. The Michigan team brought 21 of their friends to the hackathon to be guinea pigs.
For instance, you can rile up your political junkie friends by announcing that you’re voting for Romney or Obama. You can also stun pals by announcing that you’re dropping out of school to launch a startup. (The site-generated posts do not contain offensive language or sexual references.) When you have had your laugh, you can press the “UnHack Your Facebook” button so that the site doesn’t generate any more posts. Users can delete them, too.
The developers said that just the other day, a roommate’s girlfriend came over to their room, and she allowed them to use the site to change her Facebook status to say that she was pregnant (the “It’s a Girl” option). According to Shiva Kilaru, one of the developers and an informatics major at Michigan: “She has friends from back home that she hasn’t seen in a while, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, are you actually pregnant?!’ People were calling her and texting her. The post got 40 likes within one hour.” Raj, a computer science major, chimed in, “We heard people on the street talking about it. But then the next morning, she pressed the ‘UnHack’ button and told everyone, ‘I got hacked, I’m not actually pregnant’ and deleted the post.”
While the girlfriend had consented to the joke, that kind of a post could easily have been done maliciously. Many young Facebook users end up being victims of Facebook hackers or spies, mostly friends who hop onto their computers and mess with them when they’re not there. A 2011 Associated Press-MTV poll found that 65 percent of teens and young adults said someone they knew “very well” had impersonated them on their email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, or another Internet account without their permission. Nearly half said they were upset by the actions. The AP’s article about the poll cited one 15-year-old who was humiliated when someone posted “something inappropriate about girls in showers” on her Facebook page.
At PennApps, the developers admitted that the team had initially created BuddyHack, a site that hacked into friends’ Facebook accounts and posted silly things without their knowledge. The site had achieved 400 unique visitors per minute and climbed to the top of Hacker News. But they said that 30 minutes before their demo started, Facebook shut-down BuddyHack, saying that it violated the site’s terms of service. According to the Facebook’s Terms of Service, developers cannot “mislead, confuse, defraud, or surprise users.” The Michigan team reconfigured the site so that the prank would be on the prankster instead.
“We’re hoping the content is goodhearted fun and not malicious,” said David Fontenot, a computer science major.
Next, the three Michigan hackers will head to a nationwide hackathon for college students at Facebook’s headquarters. They won a trip there after winning the University of Michigan’s Facebook hackathon in March 2012 with their site BuddyMeme, which turns friends’ profile pictures into memes.
“It’s really amazing to work on something for less than 48 hours and have thousands of people use it the next day,” Shiva Kilaru said. “Few things give you that sort of power outside of technology.”