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Security flaw leads Twitter, others to pull OAuth support

Use of the open-source protocol has been put on hold by some major Web services until a security issue has been resolved, developers tell CNET News.

A security hole in OAuth, the open-source protocol that acts as a "valet key" for users' log-in information, has led services like Twitter and Yahoo to temporarily pull their support, CNET News has learned.

Some developers were dismayed when Twitter pulled its support for OAuth, which it had only recently started to implement: blogger Jesse Stay wrote in a post about other restrictions to Twitter's developer API that its removal of OAuth is one of a number of recent examples of how the microblogging service has "pulled the rug out from under its developers."

In the interest of online safety, CNET News has chosen not to make the details of the security hole public. Here are the basics: The hole makes it possible for a hacker to use social-engineering tactics to trick users into exposing their data. The OAuth protocol itself requires tweaking to remove the vulnerability, and a source close to OAuth's development team said that there have been no known violations, that it has been aware of it for a few days now, and has been coordinating responses with vendors. A solution should be announced soon.

This is a particularly big deal for Twitter, as OAuth prevents users of a service from having to hand over their passwords to third-party services that use that service's application program interface (API), and Twitter relies heavily on developer-created enhancements to the service from clients like Twhirl and TweetDeck to statistics and analytics applications.

"OAuth is still in beta, for what it's worth," Twitter API lead Alex Payne said in (of course) a Twitter message on Wednesday. "We should have the current issue with it resolved soon."

Eran Hammer-Lahav, the OAuth community coordinator for this specific threat, spoke to CNET News later on Wednesday afternoon. "We have been aware of this threat for about a week now, and we have been coordinating with all known providers to help them understand the threat and deploy whatever mitigating factors they can," Hammer-Lahav said, adding that full details will be made available on the OAuth Web site at midnight Pacific time on Thursday. "There are no known exploits of this, so there are no reported attacks and the providers have either already deployed matters to address this or are doing it right now."

He highlighted Twitter's role in helping to keep things on the down-low at its own expense; when the service disabled OAuth, it did not mention that there was a security hole at its root.

"The community is extremely grateful to Twitter, despite the fact that they have been standing alone in the line of fire and taking the heat for this threat as if it was their own issue," Hammer-Lahav explained. "They basically took the PR hit in order to allow other companies to address it. They were doing it not to protect themselves, but to protect other companies."

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone responded to the threat on the company blog: "We take security seriously and felt the responsible thing to do was temporarily disable OAuth while this matter was sorted out. Yahoo and others made similar decisions," Stone wrote. "The developers working on Twitter projects that are in our beta test group felt this disruption the hardest and their patience is extremely appreciated."

This post was last expanded at 1:36 p.m. PT.