Friday, July 29

FireFox Sync: Ease of Use and Security Implications

Although, I most often cover business-related identity issues, this post is going to focus on an issue for home users (that also applies to business). In the past, I wrote about the differences between Web SSO and ESSO. And I recently wrote about Mozilla's BrowserID which is focused on home users but is more closely aligned to Web SSO than today's topic.

I've used a variety of browsers over the years from Netscape 2 and IE 3 through today's versions of Chrome and FireFox. Although it was considered uncool by many, I primarily used IE for a number of years. But today, I almost exclusively use FireFox 5. It's fast, intuitive, good security features, control over privacy, extensible via plugins, etc. But one of the killer features for me is FireFox Sync.

I have all my bookmarks and preferences synced across multiple computers and my smart phone. It's extremely convenient and even encouraged me to finally organize my bookmarks - something I hadn't really done in the 15 years I've been online. But, there's an aspect to Sync that's incredibly dangerous.

It's dangerous because it makes life so darned easy. It's a fantastic feature from a user perspective. Sync includes browser-stored passwords. So, sign in at home and get automatic logon from work and mobile without needing to remember or re-type passwords. I can't count the number of times I was mobile and couldn't access a site from my phone because I didn't have the password. With Firefox Sync, my passwords can be automatically sync'ed across all my devices saving time and making life easy. My typical blog audience should already know where I'm going with this. 

When you organize your sites in bookmarks and auto-save passwords, you make it very easy for anyone who accesses your workspace to get quick access to ALL of your favorite sites. How likely is it that someone could get a hold of your smart phone or laptop? Well, it's not unlikely. Here are some stats. Losing a phone used to mean shelling out a few bucks for a new one. Today, it means someone could get immediate access to every site you use with your own credentials. You've made it way too easy. You even have a folder for your banking sites so they know where to quickly find all your account information.

The above scenario (which makes the user experience seamless and easy) is the security equivalent of leaving cash on your dashboard with the car unlocked, the windows rolled down, while you walk around the mall handing out maps that show how to find your car.

Firefox Sync raises your risk profile and should only be used in combination with locked down devices, smart selection of which sites you'll include in your bookmarks, discipline to not store sensitive passwords, and you should set a master password so everything isn't left wide open. The tech security industry is getting better with each new release, but we're still in the infancy. We need to stay alert.

Happy surfing.


Lance said...


Have you considered LastPass? Especially now that they've acquired Xmarks, it gives you a platform neutral (and imo, more secure) method of bookmark and credential syncing.

My work requires equal use of IE and FF, so I like the flexibility that gives me.

Matt Flynn said...

Lance, thanks for the comment! The reason I felt compelled to write this post is that the functionality is built into the browser. I don't think many people outside of IT go out looking for a more secure solution for anything. They are driven toward whatever makes life simple and if it's built-in, they're more likely to use it. Plus, you'd need to purchase the premium edition of LastPass to get functionality on your smartphone, which was the most compelling feature (and biggest risk) for me.