Kicked in the nuts by Facebook


I had a really low moment yesterday. I’d just finished the request-sending part of Funhouse Photo, and it was working like a dream. The request contained a picture of the recipient that the sender had put through Funhouse, along with a short message. I sent a few test messages, and everything looked good.

Then, it stopped working. Instead of the app-supplied image, the request now showed the plain photo of the sender. This completely killed the effectiveness of the request! Before it was really compelling because you actually saw a photo of yourself run through the software right there in the message, now it was unclear what Funhouse Photo actually offered.

I discovered that Facebook had decided to start ignoring the app-supplied image. They didn’t explain why in their announcement, but I can only guess there were some security concerns, though I’m having a hard time picturing the problems. This is why I hate, hate, hate having platform dependencies, especially on something that is so new and fluid. They can make a decision that has a devastating impact on your product, and you’ve got no way out but trying to work around it.

Anyway, I sucked it up, and completed an alternative implementation that uses notifications instead of app requests. There’s still no photo visible until you click, so it’s definitely not as good as my original setup, but should still provide a fun service for my users.

Talking of users, I’m now up to a grand total of 7! The app is still waiting in the queue for the directory, but the interesting thing is that two of my users aren’t in my friends network, which means they must have spotted it on one of my friends’ profiles and decided to add it. That’s very encouraging.

Security hole in Facebook Footprints example

As I was working on Funhouse Photo last night, I ran into a bug where a database insertion operation was failing. I realized that this was because I had copied the Footprints example, and created the query using string concatenation, eg:

$res = mysql_query('SELECT `from`, `to`, `time` FROM footprints WHERE `to`=' . $user . ' ORDER BY `time` DESC', $conn);

In my case, it was an internally generated string that was causing the problem, because it contained an unescaped single quote. I realized that I was also passing in strings I’d received from the user via POST. This means that someone could easily run an SQL injection attack, and get full access to my database!

An injection attack works by passing a user input string that contains a quote and semi-colon to prematurely finish the query command the host thinks they’re running. The rest of the string contains some other arbitrary command that the attacker wants to run. In the query above, if $user was actually passed as

12345'; DROP TABLE footprints; --

then the complete query would read

SELECT `from`, `to`, `time` FROM footprints WHERE `to`='12345'; DROP TABLE footprints; --'ORDER BY `time` DESC

In this example a table’s deleted, but you could insert almost any SQL statement.

(Edit – PatMan pointed out in the comments that mysql actually has a nice security feature that only allows a single statement in a PHP mysql execute. This is reassuring, it definitely makes it harder to do any damage, though it still leaves the door open to plenty of data-access exploits)

There are two main ways to avoid this. In PHP4 and earlier, magic quotes is turned on by default, which means all posted strings have their quotes auto-magically prefixed with backslashes. This turned out to be a dodgy solution for a lot of reasons, and it was turned off by default in PHP5, which is what I’m running.

A better fix, and the one I ended up using, is to call mysql_real_escape_string() on any strings before you concatenate them into a query. You could also use something other than concatenation to create your query.

Now, I’m a PHP/mysql newbie, but it seems like a pretty Bad Thing that Facebook’s example app contains this security hole. Newbies like me are also the ones least likely to already know that it’s a security problem, and so will copy it blindly into their own apps.

Hopefully the guys over at Facebook will be able to update the example, before it infects too many other apps, and gives hackers access to all the personal data that’s being stored. I have posted on the developer discussion board, but it’s unclear if there’s any other way to alert the team.

Funhouse Photo User Count : 5. I worked on the ‘send a photo to a friend’ feature last night, that’s still not working (a story for another post) so I’ve held off publicizing it. It is in the queue for the directory now though.

Facebook app statistics


One of the things I really like about having an app on Facebook is that I can easily see how many people are using it. This may sound trivial, but for my Firefox and IE extensions, I’m stuck trying to estimate usage based on downloads. Now I’m on the main Firefox add-on site, I can get stats on downloads from there, but they’re a bit opaque:

It’s good to see I’m approaching 4000 downloads in the past few weeks, but until recently that total had stayed at 867 for a long time. And that per-week total has always shown 1. So I’m not convinced they’re very up-to-date, though I’m pretty sure they aren’t over-counting downloads, just slow in showing them.

As an aside, these stats indicate that focusing my message really paid off. PeteSearch had only around 200 downloads after several weeks, on the same site.

For my IE plugin, I have to go off my web site logs. I’ve used some of the built-in traffic-monitoring tools, but they all seem geared towards overall site statistics rather than the particular measure I want: "How many people with agents you recognize (eg not robots) downloaded this file over a particular period of time? How many since the beginning of time, and were they repeat customers (ie upgrading)?"

What I end up doing is just looking at the raw latest visitors log, and getting a qualitative impression of downloads. What I see is that Firefox users outnumber IE by at least ten to one. There are several possible explanations for this:

  • My promotion’s been a lot more effective in the Firefox market.
  • People who are early-adopters interested in something like GoogleHotKeys are also more likely to have adopted Firefox.
  • IE users don’t have much of an add-on selection, so they’re unused to installing extensions, and are probably more wary of the security risks.

Even once you know the download totals, unless you build in an unpopular phoning-home capability, it’s hard to know how many people are actually using it. I have a help link added to every Google page that users are free to click on, so that is at least an existence proof for usage; if I see it showing up, I know somebody’s gone ahead and installed it.

Facebook gives both the developer and the rest of the world a simple and up-to-date view of how many people are using an app. This should help me understand what’s working and what isn’t, and learn from my customers very quickly. It’s also a good motivating score-card!

To provide some edutainment, I’ll include the current number of Funhouse Photo users in every post, along with a short explanation of anything that’s happened to explain them. Here’s the first report:

5 users – This includes my sister! I’ve sent out links to a few people to test it, but it’s not in the directory, and I haven’t tried to promote it in any other ways yet, since there’s still some bugs to iron out.

Funhouse Photo launched


As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been interested in doing server-side image processing using ImageMagick. After a couple of evenings of hacking, I’ve now created my first Facebook app, Funhouse Photo!

It allows you to apply fun effects to your portrait, along with a caption, and have that show up in your profile. There’s currently twenty effects, with some preset captions that you can customize.


I’m also planning on adding the ability to play with your friend’s pictures, and send them on. I’m keeping it out of the public directory until it’s had a bit of testing, but if you’re on Facebook, give it a whirl!

Here’s roughly how it works:

  • The current user portrait URL is retrieved from the facebook API
  • wget is used to pull that image down to my server
  • I then run the presets, stored as command-line ImageMagick scripts, with the portrait as the input image
  • Both the retrieved portrait and the processed images are cached on-disk, so subsequent calls won’t involve any processing
  • The user picks one of the effects, and the choice is stored in a mysql database
  • If they then customize the caption, that’s also stored
  • When both choices have been made, the FBML of the profile frame is set to point to the processed image’s URL

One of the things I’m most interested to see is how the performance holds up with multiple users. I can make a rough estimate of its CPU usage, but there’s also a lot of other key factors in overall performance. In particular, pulling down the original image using wget seems like an unusual use of a hosting server, and I assume they’re set up for serving data, rather than pulling it, so I’ll be curious to see how that works out. The image processing itself is obviously CPU intensive, but I’m hoping with such small images (100×75), it won’t be too bad.

ImageMagick review


I’ve known about ImageMagick for a while, and I’ve been looking for a chance to try it out. If you haven’t run across it, it’s a command-line image processing tool, and having finally played with it for a facebook app, I’m very impressed!

It’s installed everywhere

I was very pleasantly surprised to find that my dreamhost account already had version 6.2 pre-installed. Even more surprising, my old and usually-sparse WebHSP server does too! This meant no messing around trying to build it from source, or install the binaries and deal with dependencies. The only disappointment was finding that it wasn’t built in to OS X on my home machine, though there are binaries available of course.

It’s heavily used

The framework is in its sixth version, and it’s obviously being used by a lot of people. This gives it two big advantages; there’s been a lot of testing to catch bugs, and there’s some great documentation available. I particularly love the usage documentation. It’s bursting at the seams with examples solving practical problems, and that’s the way I learn best.

It’s both elegant and full of features

It must have been a tricky balancing act to get through six versions, with all the change in people and requirements, and keep the conventions for all the commands consistent, whilst constantly adding more. The way the image flow is specified is necessarily pretty hard to visualize, since it’s inherently a tree structure that’s been compressed into a line of text, but since all the operations work with the flow in the same way, it’s possible to figure out what’s going on without referring to the documentation on specific options.
The features include a wide and useful range of built-in filters, and a variety of expansion mechanisms. The only thing I missed was a filter plugin SDK, it would be nice to add to the current set using third-party operations.

It’s fast

I haven’t measured performance quantitatively, but I’ve been experimenting with doing heavy operations on large arrays of images across the web, and I haven’t seen any lag yet.

As an example, here’s how to call ImageMagick to generate a thumbnail through PHP. I stole this from the excellent dreamhost support wiki, and you’ll need to make sure you can exec() from your version of PHP if you’re on another hosting provider.

       $command='-thumbnail 150';
       $convert=$location . ' ' .$command . ' ' . $name . $extfrm . ' ' . $name . $extto;
       exec ($convert);
       print "<img src=" . $output . ">";

Welcome hackszine readers!


Jason Striegel over at hackszine, the blog of Maker magazine, has been a big supporter of my hacking with Google, and has just published an update on my IE porting work. He mentions the wiki I’ve set up to shed light on the obscure world of IE plugins, and you can look forward to lots of other fun stuff on the Facebook API here as I learn more about it. Thanks for the mention Jason!

The spectacular Angeles mountains


I just got back from a gruelling hike up Mount Baden-Powell in the Angeles mountains, the range that surrounds the north of Los Angeles. They’re a different beast than the Santa Monicas, higher, steeper and more rugged, pure heaven for someone who grew up in a place flatter than Kansas. In the winter, I often see snow on the peaks above me as I’m driving through a heat-wave in the Valley!

Yesterday, me, Liz and a few friends from work did a 2,800′ climb over four miles, to get to the peak at 9,400′. That was a killer, especially with the elevation gain. We, of course, ran into the obligatory old bloke near the top, who had hiked twelve miles to get there from the other end, and was happy to tell us about all the 17,000′ one-day elevation gains he’d done. My excuse is that all some of these retired folks do is go tearing around the mountains all week. How am I meant to compete with that, sitting in front of a computer for ten hours most days?

On a clear day, you can look down on the desert 8000 feet below to the north, and out to the Channel Islands in the Pacific to the north. The only down-side is that it’s so wind-swept and snow-covered in the winter, that only a few hardy plants survive at higher elevations, mostly gnarled pines and a few tough shrubs. The Santa Monicas are still my favorite haunt, with all their wild-flowers and waterfalls, but I love having such a spectacular range on my doorstep.