If you use an open wifi network, people around you can see what you’re doing. They not only can look at your accounts, but log in as you with a double click. Even if you’re non-technical (especially if you’re non-technical!) you should know how this works and how to protect your accounts. Here’s what’s happening:
When you use wireless internet you are sending information through the air from your computer to a router* somewhere. This information is like broadcasting your own little radio station: it can be picked up and seen by anyone in the area. The problem is, your radio station is broadcasting you checking email, updating your OkCupid profile, writing stupid messages to friends on Facebook… activities that you don’t want random “listeners” to know about.
To keep your radio station private, websites support encoding all of the data you send so it looks like gibberish to anyone on the outside. So, when you sign into Gmail (or Amazon or Chase) your computer turns your username and password into gibberish and sends it into the air. The website receives the message, decodes the gibberish, and says “Now that you’ve given me your credentials, I’ll assume you’re Joe Shmoe if you give me the unlikely combination of digits ‘874328972387498234’ every time you make a request.” And then most sites stop encoding anything.
So, when you post a status update to your wall, you send along “874328972387498234” as clear as day and Facebook says “Aha, it’s you. Okay, I’ll post that.”
However, remember that you’re broadcasting this on your own personal radio station. Well, someone finally built a tuner, called Firesheep. If you have Firesheep installed and you sit down in a coffeeshop (or anywhere with an open wifi network), you are logged in as everyone around you to every site the other patrons are visiting.
Important takeaways for non-geeks:
- Don’t access any accounts you care about via a public wifi connection. There is an embarrassingly long list of sites built into Firesheep: Amazon, Cisco, Facebook, Flickr, Google, New York Times, Twitter, WordPress, Yahoo, and many others. My mom could figure out how to use Firesheep and it would take a geek ~10 minutes to add a new site.
- This “hack” cannot be patched globally by flipping a switch. Each website needs to fix itself. It is analogous to a locksmith discovering that every lock can be unlocked by whistling at it: everyone needs to go and improve their locks, we can’t outlaw whistling.
- There’s no easy way, other than not using your accounts, to prevent people from seeing what you’re doing. The easiest ways I can think of off the top of my head are setting up Tor or a VPN, which are beyond the abilities (or at least interest) of most non-geeks I know.
- Gmail encodes everything, by default. Your Google account will pop up in Firesheep (see the screenshot above), but people won’t actually be able to access your email. Also, any bank or reasonably professional payment system will be secure (look for the little lock symbol in the corner of your browser or https:// in the address bar). You can log into someone’s Amazon account with Firesheep, but you can’t do any payment stuff.
The code for Firesheep is open source and available on Github. You can try it out by starting up Firefox, downloading Firesheep, going to File->Open File and selecting the file you just downloaded. You may have to select View->Sidebar->Firesheep if it doesn’t pop up automatically.
That’s it, it’s ready to start capturing data from other people on your wifi network.
* Geeks: I know it’s not necessarily a router, but most lay people know that a router is where internet comes out and it’s close enough.