Firesheep Is Just The Messenger

I must say that I’m glad to see there are no plans to pull Firesheep. Add-ons have a lot of power since they run in a privileged space. Anything your browser can access, your add-ons can access. The point to being able to kill add-ons was to protect the user in situations where an add-on was either bundling malware or sending information without the users consent. Firesheep does none of that. It behaves exactly as advertised. It also causes no harm to the user or their computer.

Firesheep doesn’t do anything that couldn’t be done with a packet sniffer, it just makes it trivial enough that the average person can do it. It just makes a flaw in many websites more visible. The more technical folks have known this for years. Firesheep is just the messenger. These insecure bits of traffic have traveled across the wire for a decade or more. All traffic across Ethernet is visible to all devices. This is how Ethernet works. The network is a shared medium. It’s just a matter of looking at it. WiFi is a slightly different ballgame but at the end of the day if a wireless signal is unencrypted, it’s just a matter of listening.

I am not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV) but from a legal perspective I suspect Gregg Keizer is correct in suggesting that it’s likely legal under federal wiretapping statutes (ethics is another debate). However a company likely can still fire you for using it, and a school likely can still kick you out for using it on their network. Private networks have their own rules and policies.

That covers the detection of a session. If you were to actually session jack, that would likely be considered fraud, hacking, identity theft, etc. depending on what you do. Generally speaking, unauthorized access to a computer system is illegal. If you are using someone else’s credentials, that’s by definition unauthorized access.

Electronic communications law is hardly considered developed or mature but generally there isn’t an expectation of privacy when no encryption is used and transmission is done over a shared connection. It’s akin to speaking to someone on the street and being overheard. That said, if someone reads their credit card number while on a cell phone call and you use the credit card information you overheard, it’s still fraud regardless of the interception method.

Bottom line: It’s time to start securing connections.

Firesheep Demonstrates The Need For SSL

There’s been a storm of discussion over the past 72 hours about Eric Butler’s Firefox extension Firesheep. To summarize, it’s a Firefox extension that facilitates session hijacking by packet sniffing for data from certain websites. As far as software goes, it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary, at its core it’s a packet sniffer. The evolution is the pretty UI which makes it trivial to hijack someone’s session (he really did do a good job on the UI, it’s so easy a child could use it).

It’s actually surprising to me that so many people are shocked by what this demonstrates. Even those who claim to be technically literate seem taken back. Insecure sites by definition are insecure. Anyone can read what’s going across the wire (that includes WiFi) when it is sent unencrypted. If your browser can interpret and use the information to let you browse Facebook, Twitter, etc. so can any browser, on any computer. It’s that simple. Firesheep only supports a handful of sites, but adding support for more sites isn’t difficult. If your favorite website hasn’t been done yet, I expect it will be soon enough.

How Do You Protect Yourself?

The best way to protect yourself is to demand that websites that hold private information use HTTPS from the moment you log in until you log out. Short of that, the best you can do is use a Firefox extension like EFF’s HTTPS Everywhere to force your browser to use HTTPS. This won’t work everywhere as not every web server even has HTTPS working, but many secretly do. They sometimes use HTTPS for certain things like login, then use insecure HTTP for the rest of your visit. That’s so your password isn’t transmitted in plain text. Protecting a password is important, but if the session is insecure anyone can intercept what you do. HTTPS Everywhere works by rewriting all requests to many popular sites to use HTTPS ensuring your privacy and security through the length of your visit. Some websites will have minor issues. For example Facebook Chat is impossible to support right now due to it not working via HTTPS. The rest of Facebook however works.

For more advanced users, HTTPS Everywhere lets you write your own rulesets for sites it doesn’t support.

How Do Websites Protect Their Users?

It’s very simple. Use HTTPS for the period a user is logged in, not just when authenticating and submitting sensitive data. Sure it’s a little slower and requires more hardware, but scaling HTTPS these days isn’t nearly as difficult as it was just 5 years ago. In 2 years it will be even easier. Google went as far as forcing HTTPS upon all of Gmail users. Binding a session to an IP address is fussy and largely ineffective due to NAT, WiFi hotspots and mobile services that can cause an IP to just change with little/no notice. It’s not effective security. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not a fix.

Google could make a huge difference by supporting SSL in Google AdSense, something I’ve called for since 2008. Google has supported SSL with Google Analytics for some time, but they have lagged with rolling out support in other services. Lots of websites monetize with AdSense and this is just another reason websites put off supporting SSL. Other ad networks should do the same. Google AdSense has the least barrier to entry since they serve their text ads off of their own infrastructure, vs. creatives hosted by other parties like some smaller ad networks. One could argue having third-party code inserted on a page mitigates security but it would still be a major improvement over the current state of affairs and would prevent simple session jacking.