This is the story of how, in the summer of 2004, Mark Zuckerberg hacked into a Facebook rival called ConnectU, whose founders had accused him of stealing their idea to build Facebook. The details of this story were developed from a broader investigation of the origins of Facebook. The investigation included interviews with more than a dozen sources over two years, as well as what we believe to be relevant IMs and emails from the period.
During the summer of 2004, Mark Zuckerberg’s new social network theFacebook.com was already wildly popular.After Mark launched it in February, the site dominated the conversation at Harvard all spring. It reached 250,000 users by the end of August and a million users that fall.
TheFacebook.com was so popular that one thing Mark probably never needed to worry about was competition from the other social network launched at Harvard in 2004, ConnectU, whose founders had accused him of stealing their idea.
ConnectU’s founders — Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra — had launched the site that spring at 15 schools. But it never gained anywhere close to the critical mass of user adoption that Facebook did. Today, 400 million people visit Facebook each month while ConnectU exists only in the Internet archives.
Nevertheless, during 2004, Mark Zuckerberg still appeared to be obsessed with ConnectU. Specifically, he appears to have hacked into ConnectU’s site and made changes to multiple user profiles, including Cameron Winklevoss’s.
At one point, Mark appears to have exploited a flaw in ConnectU’s account verification process to create a fake Cameron Winklevoss account with a fake Harvard.edu email address.
In this new, fake profile, he listed Cameron’s height as 7’4″, his hair colour as “Ayran Blond,” and his eye colour as “Sky Blue.” He listed Cameron’s “language” as “WASP-y.”
Next, Mark appears to have logged into the accounts of some ConnectU users and changed their privacy settings to invisible. The idea here was apparently to make it harder for people to find friends on ConnectU, thus reducing its utility. Eventually, Mark appears to have gone a step further, deactivating about 20 ConnectU accounts entirely.
Mark appeared to be worried about the risk of his actions, but reasoned that ConnectU’s developers wouldn’t notice a succession of account deactivations coming from the same IP address. He took comfort that Apache logs didn’t reveal that type of activity either. Mark also figured that if ConnectU developers did notice anything, their most natural conclusion would be to think that someone had emailed people convincing them to deactivate their accounts.
It is not clear how Mark accessed these accounts. (In an earlier hack of the email accounts of two Harvard Crimson editors, he used login information stored in Facebook’s servers.) It does appear that he retained access to ConnectU’s servers for quite some time.
When we reviewed the details of this story with Facebook, the company had this comment:
“We’re not going to debate the disgruntled litigants and anonymous sources who seek to rewrite Facebook’s early history or embarrass Mark Zuckerberg with dated allegations. The unquestioned fact is that since leaving Harvard for Silicon Valley nearly six years ago, Mark has led Facebook’s growth from a college website to a global service playing an important role in the lives of over 400 million people.”
We’re certainly not questioning the latter fact: Facebook’s success — and Mark’s role in it — have been awe-inspiring.
Given the significant concerns about online privacy and ethics, however, it seems reasonable to ask what the company’s reaction — and Mark’s current reaction — is to the reported behaviour above.
A source close to the company suggests that it was the fallout from early behaviour like this — fallout that has included reputational damage to Mark Zuckerberg and expensive and prolonged litigation with ConnectU — that has shaped Facebook’s current privacy policies. We imagine — or at least hope — that these searing early mistakes have also a profound influence on the now 25-year-old Mark Zuckerberg.
- At Last — The Full Story Of How Facebook Was Founded
- How Mark Zuckerberg Hacked Into Rival ConnectU In 2004
- How Mark Zuckerberg Hacked The Harvard Crimson Using Data From TheFacebook.com