You may think the only people capable of snooping on your Internet activity are government intelligence agents or possibly a talented teenage hacker holed up in his parents’ basement. But some simple software lets just about anyone sitting next to you at your local coffee shop watch you browse the Web and even assume your identity online.
“Like it or not, we are now living in a cyberpunk novel,” said Darren Kitchen, a systems administrator for an aerospace company in Richmond, Calif., and the host of Hak5, a video podcast about computer hacking and security. “When people find out how trivial and easy it is to see and even modify what you do online, they are shocked.”
Until recently, only determined and knowledgeable hackers with fancy tools and lots of time on their hands could spy while you used your laptop or smartphone at Wi-Fi hot spots. But a free program called Firesheep, released in October, has made it simple to see what other users of an unsecured Wi-Fi network are doing and then log on as them at the sites they visited.
Without issuing any warnings of the possible threat, Web site administrators have since been scrambling to provide added protections.
“I released Firesheep to show that a core and widespread issue in Web site security is being ignored,” said Eric Butler, a freelance software developer in Seattle who created the program. “It points out the lack of end-to-end encryption.”
What he means is that while the password you initially enter on Web sites likeFacebook, Twitter, Flickr, Amazon, eBay and The New York Times is encrypted, the Web browser’s cookie, a bit of code that that identifies your computer, your settings on the site or other private information, is often not encrypted. Firesheep grabs that cookie, allowing nosy or malicious users to, in essence, be you on the site and have full access to your account.
More than a million people have downloaded the program in the last three months (including this reporter, who is not exactly a computer genius). And it is easy to use.
The only sites that are safe from snoopers are those that employ the cryptographic protocol transport layer security or its predecessor, secure sockets layer, throughout your session. PayPal and many banks do this, but a startling number of sites that people trust to safeguard their privacy do not. You know you are shielded from prying eyes if a little lock appears in the corner of your browser or the Web address starts with “https” rather than “http.”
“The usual reason Web sites give for not encrypting all communication is that it will slow down the site and would be a huge engineering expense,” said Chris Palmer, technology director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an electronic rights advocacy group based in San Francisco. “Yes, there are operational hurdles, but they are solvable.”