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Instagram's Biggest Security Flaw

Stevie Graham, a security researcher who reported an authentication flaw in Instagram’s iOS software a few days ago, was denied a bug bounty by Facebook.

Presumably, that’s because the flaw isn’t new, rather than because it isn’t serious. (Indeed, we first wrote about this problem in 2012.)

So Graham has gone public with instructions on how to hack other people’s Instagram accounts.

All you need is shared Wi-Fi, a packet sniffer, and the willingness to break the law to violate someone’s privacy.

Simply put, the attack is just Firesheep all over again.

Remember Firesheep?

An independent software developer in the USA has started his own campaign to push website operators towards encryption everywhere – or, at least, whenever it matters, which turns out to be a lot of the time.

Well-meaning websites use secure http, or https, at least during the login stage. This is vital, since it protects the username and password you submit. Once you have logged in, the site sets a browser session cookie which is unique to your login session.

Using a cryptographic hash tied both to your account details and to a random server-generated session key means that no-one can predict the value of this cookie in advance.

Reverting to insecure traffic brings its own intractable security problem. It exposes all of the rest of your session to interception, including the session cookie, which is transmitted in the headers of every http request to the site.


Back in 2010, social networks like Twitter and Facebook handled session authentication like this:

  1. Accept a connection using HTTPS (secure HTTP), and let the user enter his username and password over an encrypted connection, to stop criminals from sniffing the credentials.

  2. Send back a unique “session cookie”, valid until logout, with a one-time cryptographic code that proves the user has already logged in correctly.

  3. Subsequently accept that cookie over insecure (HTTP) connections.

So you couldn’t sniff the user’s password for next time, but you could sniff his session cookie and hijack his current Twitter or Facebook session in real time.


Firesheep was a Firefox plugin that automated the process of waiting for users to login and then stealing their session cookies.

That made it a point-and-click exercise to take over their accounts, at least until they realised what was going on and logged out.

The ostensible motivation for Firesheep, even though it was ripe for abuse, was to create a public kerfuffle big enough to push services like Twitter and Facebook to use HTTPS all the time.

And that is exactly what Facebook, Twitter and and others did, because it solved the problem: no unencrypted session cookie to sniff meant no session to hijack.


Fast forward nearly four years, and it looks as though the Instagram iOS app works in almost exactly the same way as explained in the 1-2-3 list above.

In short, it allows HTTP connections after the initial login.

So Instagram users with iPhones and iPads can be hijacked with ease, or so Stevie Graham claims.

So easily, in fact, that he gives five simple steps to do it (Image above).


We have just three words of advice: don’t do this.

(At least, don’t do it to someone else’s account, unless they explicitly give you permission.)

It’s definitely not nice, and it’s almost certainly not legal, wherever you may live. But if it really is as easy as Graham says, let’s hope Facebook gets onto it pretty quickly. In the meantime, you probably want to give up logging into Instagram from your iPhone or iPad. And then we can worry about how to create a public kerfuffle big enough to raise the bar for the security of mobile apps in general, because we seem to keep writing about how they are lagging behind…


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