Spurred on by an inadvertent hint that exposed a vulnerability, the website BuzzFeed said it found President Joe Biden’s personal Venmo account.
Venmo is a social media app that allows people to send money to one another quickly and easily.
BuzzFeed News claimed it found the account “after less than 10 minutes of looking for it, revealing a network of his private social connections, a national security issue for the United States, and a major privacy concern for everyone who uses the popular peer-to-peer payments app.”
BuzzFeed revealed that all it took to find the president’s account was to use “a combination of the app’s built-in search tool and public friends feature.”
But the site said it found more than just Biden’s account.
“In the process, BuzzFeed News found nearly a dozen Biden family members and mapped out a social web that encompasses not only the first family, but a wide network of people around them, including the president’s children, grandchildren, senior White House officials, and all of their contacts on Venmo,” it reported, noting that all accounts linked to Biden were taken offline after the story broke.
Venmo replied to the story with a statement that defended its privacy practices.
“The safety and privacy of all Venmo users and their information is always a top priority, and we take this responsibility very seriously. Customers always have the ability to make their transactions private and determine their own privacy settings in the app. We’re consistently evolving and strengthening the privacy measures for all Venmo users to continue to provide a safe, secure place to send and spend money,” it said.
However, others criticized the app saying its privacy flaws are well known.
“Venmo’s privacy failures are already a big problem for everyday folks who use Venmo, and that’s been the case for years,” Gennie Gebhart, acting activism director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said. “All of those problems are magnified when we’re talking about a major public figure.”
“For one of the most heavily guarded individuals in the world, a publicly available Venmo account and friend list is a massive security hole. Even a small friend list is still enough to paint a pretty reliable picture of someone’s habits, routines, and social circles.”
But it all began with what proved to be a slip of the tongue.
On Friday, The New York Times briefly mentioned in an article that a White House adviser noted the president “sent the grandchildren money using Venmo.” That began the chain of events that BuzzFeed says led to finding Biden’s account.
“If somebody wanted to map out the activities of the first family, they could just look at their activities on the social network and figure out what the family is up to by looking at what their associates are doing,” Vahid Behzadan, the director of the Secure and Assured Intellect Learning Lab at the University of New Haven, said.
“I assume that the extended associates, like friends, grandchildren, don’t enjoy the same level of security as the first family, and so it may be easier to monitor them passively through their network.”
BuzzFeed pointed out how the information it found could be misused.
“By finding these accounts, a person could physically stalk the president, his aides, or members of his family, creating a physical risk for the White House. There are also espionage risks. A spy or political opponent could also use this information to find out personal information about those close to the president, or to pose as a member of Biden’s inner circle and communicate with the president or others under false pretenses,” the outlet wrote.
“There are other possible consequences. A connection between a White House official and a journalist, for example, could potentially expose a whistleblower,” BuzzFeed added.
“This is a great example of why apps with social features should not default to allowing strangers to see each others’ data,” Alex Stamos, a Stanford University professor and former Facebook chief security officer, said. “As we’ve seen with other products such as exercise apps, national security–sensitive information can be easily gathered by intelligence services as well as from more prosaic adversaries, such as abusive spouses and stalkers.”
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