Inside the Firesheep code: how it steals your identity

You may have heard about Firesheep, a new Firefox browser add-on that lets anyone easily snoop over Wi-Fi and hijack your identity for services such as Facebook and Twitter. This is rather scary; if you're using Wi-Fi in a coffee shop and access one of these sites, the guy in the corner with a laptop could just go click-click and be logged in as you. He could then start updating your Facebook status and feed for instance. Even if you log in securely over SSL, you're not protected.

The quick explanation

Bad guy at computer
The Firesheep site gives an overview of its operation: after you log into a website, the website gives your browser a cookie. By snooping on the Wi-Fi network, Firesheep can grab this cookie, and with the cookie the Firesheep user can hijack your session just as if they are logged in as you.

You may be wondering what these mysterious cookies are. Basically, a cookie is a short block of characters. The cookie consists of a name (e.g. "datr") and a value (e.g. "QKvHTCbufakBOZi5FOI8RTXQ"). For a login cookie, the website makes up a unique value each time someone logs in and sends it to the browser. Every time you load a new page, your browser sends the value back to the website and the website knows that you're the person who logged on. This assumes a couple things: first, that a bad guy can't guess the cookie (which would be pretty hard for a long string of random characters), and second, that nobody has stolen your cookie.

Web pages usually use https for login pages, which means SSL (Secure Socket Layer) is used to encrypt the data. When using SSL, anyone snooping will get gibberish and can't get your userid and password. However, because https is slower than regular http (because all that encryption takes time), websites often only use the secure https for login, and use insecure http after that. Banking sites and other high-security sites typically use https for everything, but most websites do not.

The consequence is that if you're using unencrypted Wi-Fi, and the website uses insecure http, it's very easy for anyone else on the Wi-Fi network to see all that data going to and from your computer, including the cookies. Once they have your cookie for a website, they can impersonate you on that website.

This insecurity has been known for a long time, and it's easy for moderately knowledgeable people to use a program such as tcpdump or wireshark to see your network traffic. What Firesheep does is makes this snooping so easy anyone can do it. (I would recommend you don't do it, though.)

The detailed explanation

A few things about Firesheep still puzzled me. In particular, how do other people's network packets get into your browser for Firesheep to steal?

To get more information on how Firesheep works, I took a look at the source code. Since it's open source, anyone can look at the code at

The packet sniffing code is in the firesheep/backend/src directory. This code implements a little program called "firesheep-backend" that uses the pcap library to sniff network traffic and output packets as JSON.

pcap is a commonly-used packet capture library that will capture data packets from your network interface. Normally, a network interface ignores network packets that aren't intended to be received by your computer, but network interfaces can be put into "promiscuous mode" (note: I didn't invent this name) and they will accept any incoming network data. Normally packet capture is used for testing and debugging, but it can also be used for evil snooping. (As an aside, the unique MAC address - the number such as 00:1D:72:BF:C9:55 on the back of a network card - is used by the network interface to determine if the packet is meant for it or not.)

Going back to the code, the http_sniffer.cpp gets a data packet from the pcap library, looks for TCP packets (normal internet data packets), and then http_packet.cpp uses http-parser to parse the packet if it's an HTTP packet. This breaks a HTTP packet into its relevant pieces including the cookies. Finally, the relevant pieces of the packet are output in JSON format (a JavaScript-based data format that can be easily used by the JavaScript plugin in the browser).

That explains how the packets get captured and converted into a format usable by the Firefox add-on. Next I will show how Firesheep knows how to deal with the cookies for a particular website.

The xpi/handlers directory has a short piece of JavaScript code for each website it knows how to snoop. For instance, for Flickr:

// Authors:
//   Ian Gallagher 
  name: 'Flickr',
  url: '',
  domains: [ '' ],
  sessionCookieNames: [ 'cookie_session' ],

  identifyUser: function () {
    var resp = this.httpGet(this.siteUrl);
    var path =;
    this.userName = path.split('/')[2];
    this.userAvatar = resp.body.querySelector('.Buddy img').src;
This code gives the name of the website (Flickr), the URL to access, the domain of the website, and the name of the session cookie. The session cookie is the target of the attack, so this is a key line. Next is a four line function that is used to fetch the user's name and avatar (i.e. picture) from the website once the cookie is obtained.

Firesheep currently has handlers for about 25 different websites. By writing a short handler similar to the above, new websites can easily be hacked (if their cookie is accessible).

The visible part of the extension that appears in the browser is in firesheep/xpi/chrome. The most interesting parts are in the content subdirectory. ff-sidebar.js implements the actual sidebar and displays accounts as they are sniffed.

The "meat" of the JavaScript plugin is in firesheep/xpi/modules. Firesheep.js implements the high-level operations such as startCapture() and stopCapture(). FiresheepSession.js is the glue between the plugin and the firesheep-backend binary that does the actual packet collection. Finally FiresheepWorker.js does the work of reading the packet summary from firesheep-backend (via JSON) and processing it by checking the appropriate website-specific handler and seeing if the desired cookie is present.

Finally, how do the pieces all get put together into the add-on that you can download? Firefox extensions are explained on the developer website. The install.rdf file (in firesheep/xpi) gives the Firefox browser the main information about the extension.

Well, that summarizes how the Firesheep plugin works based on my analysis of the code. Hopefully this will help you realize the risk of using unsecured Wi-Fi networks!

A visit from The Great Internet Migratory Box of Electronics Junk

tgimboej - The Great Internet Migratory Box of Electronics Junk
A mysterious package showed up on my doorstep today - box "INTJ-28", an instance of the The Great Internet Migratory Box of Electronics Junk, also known as TGIMBOEJ, which is the invention of a group called Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories (note: I am not making this up). The concept is someone sends a box of electronics junk to a recipient (e.g. me), the recipient takes some parts, adds some new parts, and sends it to a new recipient. Each recipient documents the box. There are currently about 120 of these boxes roaming the world.
Inside the box of junk
How did I end up with this box? I signed up on the request list a bit over a year ago, and was recently chosen by Mr. INTJ to receive a box. In other words, some total stranger on the internet sends me a box of junk. In turn, I've picked another total stranger from the list to receive the updated box of junk.
The contents of the box of junk
The contents of the box were pretty interesting. At the top is speaker wire, a USB/PS2 adapter, network cable, and a firewire cable. The blue box is the puzzling "JBM Electronics Gateway Cellular Router C120+F". To the right of it is a box of 9 small speakers, which seems like more speakers than anyone would need (which may be why they are in this box). In the next row is a wall-wart, USB extension, firewire cable, gender changer, RCA cable, a very bright 9-LED module, a Intel PRO/1000 MT Gigabit adapter, binding posts, a little mystery board, a short Ethernet cable, and a USB cable. At the bottom is a blinking USB ecobutton, two small stepper motors, a large stepper motor, and a HP combination calculator / numeric pad (which seems to be broken). Under the stepper motor is a PIC 18f4431 microcontroller, designed for motor control, and a Basic Stamp 2p microcontroller module. I think the Basic Stamp is the prize of the box, but I'm leaving it for the next recipient since I'm unlikely to switch from Arduino to a new platform. (Click the above image for a larger version.)

I ended up taking the big stepper motor, the LED, a few cables, the binding posts, one of the speakers, and the ecobutton. What I added to the box will be a surprise to the next recipient, whom I hope will post soon.

Car radio repair made difficult

My wife's car radio suddenly quit working, so I figured I'd take a look and see if I could fix it. The first problem was that it was mounted in the dash with 5-sided security fasteners, apparently to frustrate radio thieves who only have standard tools. Even my 100-piece security bit set let me down in this occasion, entirely lacking in the pentagonal category. Fortunately, Ebay rapidly provided me with the appropriate tool, and I started removing the radio. The alarm light started flashing and it made some angry beeps, but I was able to get the radio out without the alarm going off. I opened up the radio and took a look inside.
inside the radio
The symptoms were that the radio lit up and the display worked fine, but you could only hear extremely faint sound even if you cranked it up all the way. Using my diagnostic powers, I figured the problem was probably in the amplifier, which would probably be near the the back of the radio. Looking more closely, I noticed a capacitor oozing hideous brown gunk. Using my diagnostic powers again, I decided that this might be the problem. (It turns out that leaking electrolytic capacitors is a common problem, known as the capacitor plague.)
capacitor oozing gunk
I unsoldered the capacitor and removed the gunk as best I could. At least it wasn't as disgusting as the nest of ants that caused my previous electronic problem. The really annoying thing with the repair was the radio's circuit board had big globs of sticky heat sink compound exactly where I grabbed the board every time I picked it up. You can see the white patches in the lower left of the first picture. There was originally much more compound, but after getting it on my fingers twenty times, there wasn't much left. I should have learned to be more careful, but no such luck...

I figured it would be easy to get a replacement capacitor, so I checked the parts supplier Digi-Key. The good news was they had the exact capacitor listed. The bad news is they didn't have it in stock, and it would take 6 months to get it from the factory. Checking other parts catalogs, I found that this capacitor wasn't the easy-to-find commodity part I had expected, but a special short-and-wide capacitor designed to fit into the tight space, that nobody carried in stock. Too impatient to wait for 6 month delivery, I got a standard capacitor, which was the wrong size to mount nicely. I'll get no points for style, but I did manage to wedge it in place by putting it at a crazy angle. (I also put in new heat sink compound to replace the compound that I got all over my fingers.)
New capacitor installed in the radio
After replacing the radio, the radio wouldn't do anything because it needed the security code. Through surprising foresight, I actually had the code, and after putting the code in I found that the radio just gave me static. Oops, I forgot to connect the antennas to the radio. That was easy to fix, since I conveniently noticed before tightening up the security fasteners. With all the wires in place, I tried again and the radio seems to work as well as ever. It's always nice when one of my crazy projects actually works.

Update: no radio happiness

Unfortunately the radio quit working again after a couple days. I don't know if it has some deeper problem that killed the new capacitor too, or if the gunk from the old capacitor damaged something, but looks like it's time for a new radio. Oh well, I'll file this under less-successful-projects.