Facebook has sued a Ukrainian national for allegedly harvesting and selling personal data describing 178 million of the Social NetworkTM‘s users – actions it says violates the service’s terms of service.
The suit alleges that Alexander Alexandrovich Solonchenko created millions of virtual Android devices, each with a different phone number, and used them to deliver automated requests to Facebook systems using the Messenger app.
Over 21 months between January 2018 and September 2019, Solonchenko purportedly took advantage of Facebook Messenger’s now-defunct Contact Importer feature. The feature allowed users to synchronize their phone address books and see which contacts had an account with The Social NetworkTM, presumably so they could contact them on Messenger rather than through other means.
But Solonchenko didn’t really want to chat with 178 million people. Rather – according to court documents [PDF], he performed phone number enumeration scraping and pulled together a database of the publicly accessible user IDs and phone numbers. He then – again allegedly – put them up for sale in early December 2020 on RaidForums.com, a marketplace for questionably obtained data, under the usernames “Solomame” and “Barak_Obama”.
“I collected this database [of Facebook user IDs and phone numbers] during 2018y (sic), it’s unique and nobody sales exact that leak (sic), I collected it by myself scanning [Facebook] day-by-day during a year (sic),” wrote Solonchenko on the nefarious website, according to Facebook’s complaint.
He allegedly sold other data there too – including from a Ukrainian bank, a Ukrainian private delivery service and a French data analytics company. In May 2021, Solonchenko found a buyer for his Facebook trove.
Facebook maintains that since the defendant had at least two Facebook accounts, two Facebook apps, and a Facebook page (not to mention five Instagram accounts), he thereby had agreed at some point to the Terms of Service. These terms prohibit misleading or fraudulent activity, collecting data from Facebook products through automated means, and selling or making platform data available without written consent.
In addition to scraping and selling data, Solonchenko’s other career accomplishments include working as a freelance computer programmer. He’s skilled in Python, PHP, and Xrumer – software used for spamming. Facebook’s complaint indicates the Ukrainian is also handy with an Android emulator, has affiliate marketing skills, and has even served a stint as an online shoe salesman.
According to the complaint, the scraping run used repeating or thematic user names, phone numbers and emails, leaving breadcrumbs to link the same actor to various efforts, both legal and less so.
Facebook said it took measures to detect and disrupt unauthorized automated requests on its systems and limit phone number enumeration scraping. It also shut down the Contact Importer in September 2019 when a threat actor – who was not Solonchenko – used it to leak 533 million Facebook user phone numbers
The House That Zuck Built is asking a judge to forbid Solonchenko accessing Facebook sites or selling the data, in addition to unspecified damages. ®