Using Instagram on public Wi-Fi poses risk of an account hijack, researcher says

Instagram is moving to full https encryption but isn't there just yet

A configuration problem in Facebook's popular Instagram application for Apple devices could allow a hacker to hijack a person's account if they're both on the same public Wi-Fi network.

Stevie Graham, who describes himself as a "hacker at large" based in London, wrote on Twitter that Facebook won't pay him a reward for reporting the flaw, which he said he found years ago.

Graham wrote he hopes to draw more attention to the issue by writing a tool that could quickly compromise many Instagram accounts. He cheekily calls the tool "Instasheep," a play on Firesheep, a Firefox extension that can compromise online accounts in certain circumstances.

"I think this attack is extremely severe because it allows full session hijack and is easily automated," according to Graham's technical writeup. "I could go to the Apple Store tomorrow and reap thousands of accounts in one day, and then use them to post spam."

Graham's finding is a long-known configuration problem that has prompted many Web companies to fully encrypt all connections made with their servers. The transition to full encryption, signified by "https" in a browser URL bar and by the padlock symbol, can be technically challenging.

Instagram's API (application programming interface) makes unencrypted requests to some parts of its network, Graham wrote. That poses an opportunity for a hacker who is on the same Wi-Fi network that doesn't use encryption or uses the outdated WEP encryption, which can be easily cracked.

Some of those Instagram API calls transmit an unencrypted session cookie, or a data file that lets Instagram know a user is still logged in. By collecting the network traffic, known as a man-in-the-middle attack, the session cookie can be stolen and used by an attacker to gain control of the victim's account.

Facebook officials didn't have an immediate comment, but Instagram's co-founder, Mike Krieger, wrote on Ycombinator's Hacker News feed that Instagram has been "steadily increasing" use of full encryption.

Its "Instagram Direct" service, which allows photos to be shared with only small groups of people, is fully encrypted, he wrote. For more latency-sensitive endpoints, such as Instagram's main feed, the service is trying to make sure the transition to https doesn't affect performance, he wrote.

"This is a project we're hoping to complete soon, and we'll share our experiences in our [engineering] blog so other companies can learn from it as well," Krieger wrote.

Google offered full encryption as an option for Gmail in 2008, but two years later made it the default. Facebook switched it on by default in January 2011

Send news tips and comments to Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

Join the Good Gear Guide newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Internet-based applications and servicesInstagramsecurityExploits / vulnerabilitiesinternetFacebook

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jeremy Kirk

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Crucial® BX200 SATA 2.5” 7mm (with 9.5mm adapter) Internal Solid State Drive

Learn more >

ASUS ROG Swift PG279Q – Reign beyond virtual world

Learn more >

D-Link PowerLine AV2 2000 Gigabit Network Kit

Learn more >

D-Link TAIPAN AC3200 Ultra Wi-Fi Modem Router (DSL-4320L)

Learn more >

Xiro Drone Xplorer V -3 Axis Gimbal & 1080p Full HD 14MP Camera

Learn more >

Gadgets & Things

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >


Learn more >

Lexar Professional 2000x SDHC™/SDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Family Friendly

Lexar Professional 2000x SDHC™/SDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

ASUS VivoPC VM62 - Incredibly Powerful, Unbelievably Small

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Lexar® Professional 1000x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Lexar Professional 2000x SDHC™/SDXC™ UHS-II cards

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Best Deals on Good Gear Guide

Latest News Articles


GGG Evaluation Team

Kathy Cassidy


First impression on unpacking the Q702 test unit was the solid feel and clean, minimalist styling.

Anthony Grifoni


For work use, Microsoft Word and Excel programs pre-installed on the device are adequate for preparing short documents.

Steph Mundell


The Fujitsu LifeBook UH574 allowed for great mobility without being obnoxiously heavy or clunky. Its twelve hours of battery life did not disappoint.

Andrew Mitsi


The screen was particularly good. It is bright and visible from most angles, however heat is an issue, particularly around the Windows button on the front, and on the back where the battery housing is located.

Simon Harriott


My first impression after unboxing the Q702 is that it is a nice looking unit. Styling is somewhat minimalist but very effective. The tablet part, once detached, has a nice weight, and no buttons or switches are located in awkward or intrusive positions.


Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?