Firesheep Vs Blacksheep the new security threat

Over the past several months or so, the Internet has been abuzz about sheep, yes sheep.  Let me explain.  On October 22 2010 at ToorCon 12 a Firefox plugin was released called Firesheep. Firesheep is a tool that makes it very easy for HTTP session hijacking (also called sidjacking) to occur. The tool allows the attacker to capture the session cookie and then log in using that cookie to have full control of the account to do things such as change your Facebook photos, update your Twitter status, etc.

The primary attack vector is on open WiFi hotspots, like those in coffee shops, airports, and other public places. This is not an exploit in Firefox or your operating system, but rather the problem of open WiFi and the website your connecting to. Firesheep does nothing new and can not be patched.  This can be done with any packet sniffing tool for your platform. What it does do is make it very easy for just about anyone to launch a Firesheep attack on an open WiFi hotspot.

The ultimate solution to end all Firesheep attacks is the use of SSL on more than just login pages.  On most websites this is something that the the website must first make the internal changes and then the end user must implement with a setting change.  This is not ideal (as it should be on by default but its better than nothing). Facebook says they are evaluating implementing this.  The first major website that has made changes (Source) to protect its users from Firesheep is Microsoft with Hotmail and many of the other Live services. However this setting is not on by default; users must enable it in their settings.  I hope that with time all websites with private, or user data will make this change a default, like Google has done with Gmail.

Many web companies cite the increased cost in implementing full time SSL connections for their users.  While it is true that an SSL connection does increase the server load the difference is very small.  Google was really the first major Internet service to move a very large service to be encrypted with SSL by default for the entire session with Gmail. A Google engineer has talked about the cost of switching over to full SSL for all Gmail users in this blog post here

“all of our users use HTTPS to secure their email between their browsers and Google, all the time. In order to do this we had to deploy no additional machines and no special hardware. On our production frontend machines, SSL/TLS accounts for less than 1% of the CPU load, less than 10KB of memory per connection and less than 2% of network overhead. Many people believe that SSL takes a lot of CPU time and we hope the above numbers (public for the first time) will help to dispel that.”

They concluded that there was not a significant increase in cost or server utilization by implementing this. That being said Google has a ton of servers and a lot of resources to work with so this may not be true for every website.  However the myths of the past that this would be an incredibly expensive process and not worth it are simply not true anymore.  Implementing SSL for the entire session (versus just at log-on now) is the only true solution to this problem.  Many websites say they are working on this now and plan to implement it.  This is a good thing.

Here are some solutions that you can do to prevent being a victim of a Firesheep attack.

Be aware of the network you are on.
Know that if you’re on a open hotspot that you’re vulnerable to attack.  It’s probably not the  best idea to be logging into sensitive websites, checking email, Facebook, paying bills, etc.  If you do need to do these things consider some of the options below.

Use a minimum of WPA encryption.
While everyone in their homes should be running a minimum of WPA (preferibly WPA2) many businesses and other public places offer free WiFi that is unencrypted.  Users need to put pressure on business owners and administrators to implement the WPA protocol to protect users.  WPA offers an individualy encrypted session between the user and the router by default.  This does not protect you 100% but protects you from local Firesheep attacks which are the main threat. Many businesses have in the past not wanted to do this because of not wanting to be asked thousands of times per day what the password is or dealing with any complications; however it must be done today because of this and other security risks.  Listening to Security Now podcast #273 they came up with a great solution: put the password in the SSID.  For example the SSID might be (Joe’s Coffee Free WiFi-Password = Joe) or something similar.  This would allow a user who is browsing for the free WiFi to see the password and be secure.  It was suggested that the best way to do this would be to demonstrate the attack to a shop owner; heck, maybe you would get a free drink out of it too.

Some websites that have the option to force SSL (Secured Socket Layer) through the entire session but do not have it turned on by default (Microsoft Hotmail for example) so enable it.  This can be enabled on the security tab of the settings page. Regardless of if you’re on an open or encrypted hotspot, SSL protects you and is the ultimate solution.

Sign Out
Signing out is something everyone should be doing anyways.  Since this tool exploits a session cookie, if you end your session, the cookie that the attacker may have caught becomes worthless.  It is also just the proper way to close a session and is a must on any public computer.

HTTPS Everywhere
HTTPS Everywhere is a plugin for Firefox that is produced by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that forces encryption with many major websites.  The EFF is a foundation thats goal is to defend your digital rights. This includes Net Neutrality, privacy and security. Many websites support full HTTPS traffic but make it difficult to use.  HTTPS Everywhere makes this process nearly seamless for the websites it supports.  This is a project that is still in development but is stable and works well.  I have been using it for a few weeks now and noticed no ill effects.  It works on the following websites: Google Search, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook,, GMX, Blogs, New York Times, Washington Post, Paypal, EFF, Tor, LXQuick, and others. You must install this plugin directly from the EFF’s website as it is still in beta.  Once the plugin goes to a 1. release I expect to see it on Mozila’s plugin page as well.  I hope they will be coming out with a Chrome version soon as well.

Is a Firefox addon that monitors for Firesheep activity on the network .  It does this by broadcasting fake credentials to sites that are know to be targeted by Firesheep and then when someone does try logging into these fake sites it alerts you with a drop down box in the browser.  It is little more than a notification and offers no real protection to your personal information.  You can download it here if you are interested

VPN’s offer secure tunnels back to a connection that you trust such as your home or office.  All traffic will flow through this connection so you avoid someone who might be spying on the open hotspot at the airport your on. They require some setup but are what enterprises use to securely connect users back to the office.  They work just as well for the average user as well.  There are many free and paid ways to do this so here are a free ways to do it.  OpenVPN Other options compiled by Lifehacker

In conclusion this is a big deal. Everyone should be aware of it as you travel this holiday season.  Often times travelers hunt out free WiFi connection anywhere they can.  Open WiFi is dangerous, it always has been but with Firesheep it becomes much easier for someone to exploit for nefarious reasons. To protect yourself, consider setting up a VPN connection to your home, if you must use open WiFi connections to check sensitive email or social media websites.

Other Sources not specifically listed in the article but used

Adobe Reader X Quick Review

Last week Adobe released a new version of Adobe Acrobat, version X.  This is a new version of the program that many of us use every day.  In the past people shied away from new versions of Acrobat reader because over the years the program had become bloated and slow.  However this new version offers important security benefits and speed improvements that make the upgrade worth it.

As many people know Adobe Reader has become one of the favorite attack vectors for hackers and malware over the past few years for a number of reasons including.

  1. The install base is huge! Most new PC’s come with it preinstalled, if not almost everyone needs a PDF viewer and Adobe’s is the most popular.
  2. Quarterly updates that Adobe releases are too slow and infrequent, Only if an exploit is really bad does Adobe decided to do an out of cycle update.  Even with these updates few people know that the program needs updated.  The automatic updates in version 9 have been better but still seem to fail most of the time.  Manual updating seems to be required.
  3. The ability to run things such as Javascript in a PDF exist and are on by default.  Just about everyone does not need this feature and it represents a large place to exploit.

The Good
The biggest feature of version X is the introduction of a Sandbox.  A sandbox provides isolation  of the program from the operating system, to lessen the chance of security exploits.  Adobe does a great job in explaining all about the sandbox features in these two blog posts, Sandbox Post 1,  Sandbox Post 2, Sandbox Post 3, Sandbox Post 4.  This is such a big thing from a security angle that the SANS institute has recommended that everyone install Adobe Reader X to get this feature.

Surprisingly this new version is faster than the old version 9.  It appears to be less bloated and quicker responding.

Other changes
I noticed the voice that will read text to you if you want seems to be more like a human.  The flow is greatly improved. The interface has been tweaked slightly to have more of a beveled edge, silver stainless steel look.  I like it.  Its nothing revolutionary but a nice, clean change.  The updater also now allows for you to set it to automatically download and install updates.  Hopefully this works well and allows the program to stay up to date without much user intervention.   I do hope Adobe changes their company policy and moves to a monthly update policy on the second Tuesday of the month, like Microsoft.  This will make the task of corporate administration much easier on the administrator.

The Bad
By default two security settings are on, when they should be disabled for increased security.  They pertain to features that a very, very small percentage of users actually use.  If for some reason you needed these someday you can easily turn them on, but for maximum security they should be off.  Adobe has even recommended doing this when the program has had problems in the past.  So to disable these settings go under EDIT—> Preferences —-> Then on the Left hand side choose JavaScript and then at the top of the page, uncheck the box that says “Enable Acrobat JavaScript”
The second option that needs changed is under this same menu.  Choose Trust Manager on the left hand side of the page, then at the top of the page uncheck the box that says “Allow Opening of non-PDF file attachments with external applications”

The other bad thing is that despite these new security features the very people you are trying to keep out are trying to take advantage of this new release to push their spamware most of it dubbed “Adobe Acrobat 2010” THIS IS FAKE and Malware, DO NOT INSTALL.  The SANS institute has a nice post about this as well, even with photos!

In conclusion when combined with the new security features and increased performance this seems like a great thing to have if you like the official client.  Here is a direct download for Windows

Security the Family PC

The SANS center also known as the Internet Storm Center is a volunteer organization dedicated to computer and Internet security. They rely on volunteers to detect problems, analyze threats and provide technical and procedures to the general public and IT professionals to address these threats.  I visit their website at daily to see the new threats that I need to be aware of as a general PC user and an IT professional at work.  It is very well known in the security community of posting quality information in a very timely manner.

They have designated October as Cyber Security Awareness Month and have dedicated that efforts this year will be focused on “Securing the Person”, in other words they are talking about the human element of security.  These things go beyond the everyday security practices of “Run a Firewall” but should be helpful for anyone who does any technology trouble shooting.  I plan on highlighting some of each days topics that I think will be most helpful for readers adding comments and other thoughts along the way.

Today’s topic is “Securing the Physical Family PC”. Anyone who has a computer at home should consider implementing at least some of these tips. They are designed for families but most can apply to anyone. I will talk more about general computer security such as software updates, network security, etc in my next post.

  • Backup your computer.
    • In my opinion this is the most overlooked area in home computing today. We live in a digital world today, with most people owning a digital camera, purchasing digital content (music, movies, software, games, etc) but they fail to prepare for problems.  Computers have problems from time to time, hard drives and other hardware fail, computers become infected with viruses and malware, acts of God (Flood, Fire, Tornado), and theft all happen.  What would you do if your house burned down? Would all of your digital photos, turbotax records, music from the past 5 years burn with it? The answer should be no.  Backing up for protection from a hardware failure is easy with a local copy on another hard drive but it is not perfect because it does not protect against theft and acts of God, a more perfect solution involves an offsite backup.  Many online cloud solutions are good for this and each service is a bit different and has pro’s and con’s.  My favorite of the moment is Backblaze but other good options are Mozy and Carbonite.  Take a look at them and consider implementing something on your computer today. All of these services offer encryption and trial periods.  With any cloud based backup soltuion the initial backup may take days but in the end it  is worth it. On my list of To Blog about topics includes a couple of backup articles. More will follow.
  • Use an uninterruptable power supply (UPS) for PCs, laptops have their own built-in UPS – the battery.
    • Many people understand that a computer should be plugged into a surge protector, but a UPS is an even greater source of protection.  UPS’s allow a PC to run on battery power should the power dip, or spike or go out and most initiate a safe shutdown procedure to protect your hardware from damage that would result.  In the midwest they are very handy to help with extreme weather.
  • Document computer details in writing (serial number, software, receipts, BIOS password, etc.) and keep the documentation in a fireproof box or safe
    • This is very helpful information if you ever have computer problems or need to call your manufacture for support.  It is also helpful for an insurance inventory.  Consider storing a copy online in the cloud as well.  Dropbox, Lastpass, and a Google Document (for non sensitive information) are both good ways to do this.  Also keep the information up to date
  • Keep all of the hardware and software manuals, plus any software CDs/DVDs in one place that is easy to find
    • Common sens here, it makes it easy to find when you need it in a panic situation.
  • Use a cable lock to keep intruders from stealing the computer should there be a break-in
    • No device makes it impossible for a theif to steal if they really want it.  A cable lock does slow someone down.  This may seem overkill but works especially well in some environments (Think college dorms).
  • Throw a towel over the web cam (better:  unplug the web cam)
    • The recent news story of school district that was found to be spying on students while at home by accident with the school issued laptops integrated web cams (News stories here: Story 1, Story 2, Story 3) have brought this to the attention of the public.  It is possible for a virus of malware program to do the same thing.  As a result the easy solution is just to cover it up. On laptops with integrated web cams a piece of blue painters tape or sticky note works well too. Most people don’t use their web cams all the time so this is an easy way to improve general security.
  • Unless it needs to always be on, consider turning it off when not in use
    • Computers use a lot of energy and create a lot of heat.  Consider shutting it off or enabling sleep or suspend mode on your operating system to control this.
  • Keep plenty of room around the PC so that air can flow through to cool it
    • Computers are hot and need lots of air moving through them for cooling.  Under the desk in the corner on the dirty floor is not the best place for a PC, Out of sight is not out of mind for a computer tower.  At least once a year (quarterly is preferred) unplug the computer, take it outside and open up the side of the computer case and then blow the dust out with a can of compressed air.  This is easy to do and will keep the computer running much cooler.
  • Keep all computers in full view (no hidden machines, no illusion of privacy)
    • This one is really designed for families with children.  A PC in the living room that the kids use really do allow for parents to keep an eye on what the kids are doing online. Also for younger kids who are using the computer for homework it can help to keep down the many distractions they face (IM’s Facebook, etc)

Here is a link to the original SANS article

Secunia PSI – The Security tool every windows user should be running

Lets be honest, Windows security is not the easiest thing to manage.  On top of the Microsoft products, there exist the 3rd party programs that tend to be forgotten about. Microsoft has made great progress with the security of Windows in its most recent releases of Windows 7 and Office 2010, but that’s only part of the solution. The Microsoft update website and built in Microsoft update utility in Windows Vista and Windows 7 have helped a great deal with keeping Microsoft products up to date, but these are far from all of the programs that most people run.  Persons crafting malicious code such as viruses, malware, etc know this and are targeting other programs too.  These 3rd party programs do not have a common updater and each must be updated on its own, for example, programs like Adobe Flash Player, Adobe Acrobat, Java, and Firefox, just to name a few. It is a lot for the average user to do, especially considering there is no general update policy (IE, Patch Tuesday) with most vendors, and announcements about updates are quiet.

Enter Secunia PSI. This is a free (for personal use) program put out by the Secunia company. They specialize in finding exploits and providing monitoring software.  PSI (Personal Security Inspector) is a tool that scans the programs on your hard drive and then does version checks against its vast list of known exploits.  It then notifies you of older versions and tells you where you need to go to fix them. The program is great for finding those programs you rarely use and forget about when updating.

The program is smart. For Microsoft websites it knows to open them in Internet Explorer so the download tools will work. It also allows you to rescan specific programs after you update them instead of spending time to rescan your entire drive.  It also offers the ability to ignore a specific program if for instance you need the older version for a custom tool to work.  It will run in the background and notify you when new updates are available or new known exploits exist.   It also offers an advanced mode which offers more features and details.  In advanced mode PSI will tell you about products you have installed that are no longer supported by their vendors and any known exploits that exist in them.

Secunia also offers a product called OSI (Online Security Inspector) which is a great tool as well. It is similar to PSI but does not require you to install anything. However, it does require Java to run in the browser.  While not as thorough as PSI, it’s similar in operation and usage.

In conclusion, this is a great tool that is very thorough and easy enough to use that every user should have this in their tool box and run it as part of a biweekly security audit.  It really helps to inform users of out of date software that could leave their computer vulnerable. While PSI is targeted for personal use, they offer a corporate version that is a paid version. Its functionality is similar but it also offers many more features.

Update #1 (9-3-2010)

Since this article was originally posted Secunia has come out with a new version of its PSI security tool that is currently in beta. It is called Secunia PSI 2.0. You can grab a copy for free here. The big feature that this adds is the ability to install updates silently and automatically if you choose for your vulnerable software. I think this could be a great feature especially for people who don’t want to deal with always having to update their computers.