Firesheep, the new add-on that gives its users the ability to hijack access to Facebook, Twitter, and other sites, has created worry among the online world. While the add-on does work in certain circumstances, there are ways to protect yourself from its attacks.
Eric Butler, a freelance application developer from Seattle, introduced Firesheep recently at the ToorCon security conference in San Diego. Since its short release, Firesheep has already exceeded the 200,000 download mark, and that number is growing daily. The extension's popularity stems from the fact that it allows users to gain access to other people's accounts for websites such as Amazon, Flickr, Google, bit.ly, and the aforementioned Facebook and Twitter.
Although, on the surface, hearing that account access can be hijacked by a simple add-on may be alarming, special circumstances have to exist in order for this to occur. For a person's account to be compromised by Firesheep, they must log on to an open wireless network, and they must visit an insecure site recognized by the add-on, such as those listed above.
After installing Firesheep, the add-on creates a sidebar in the Firefox browser. If the Firesheep user connects to a open wireless network where others are present, they can then click on the interface's Start Capturing button. If anyone on the network is visiting an insecure site, their name and photo will appear. By simply double-clicking on the person, the Firesheep user then gains access to their account, and they can do as they please.
Firesheep takes advantage of the encryption or lack thereof on sites like Facebook and Twitter. While the task of logging on to the site may be encrypted, the traffic afterward usually is not, and the user's cookie is essentially "up for grabs" for any hackers who have access to the same open wireless network. Butler created Firesheep to show how such websites are lacking in terms of encryption, and how they must improve the way in which they protect their members' privacy.
While the existence of Firesheep may be unnerving, security experts claim there are ways to protect yourself from its attacks. The first precautionary measure is to avoid connecting to public Wi-Fi networks that are not encrypted. If the network allows anyone to connect to it and does not require a password, stay away.
Other experts, however, claim that the Wi-Fi networks themselves are not the real problem. They place the blame on the insecure sites instead. As long as you do not visit insecure sites that use personal data while on an open Wi-Fi network, you should be fine.
If you want to access your Facebook, Twitter, and other accounts while out and about, experts suggest using a virtual private network, or VPN. VPNs offer the advantage of encrypting traffic between your computer and the Internet. Many business professional have access to these, but access can also be purchased on a monthly basis from a provider such as Strong VPN. MiFi is another pricey option, which gives your your own Wi-Fi hot spot for around $50 per month.
Besides avoiding public Wi-Fi, using a VPN, or getting MiFi, Firefox users also have the option of downloading a couple of add-ons. Force-TLS and HTTPS-Everywhere are both free, and force the browser to use encryption on certain websites. Although each of the precautionary methods offer their own merit, they all provide some sort of protection against Firesheep and its users.
For more on this topic, visit the Computerworld story.
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