How To Install Firefox Sync Server on Ubuntu

Please note that since this guide was written, Mozilla has made some changes to Firefox that impacts syncing. If you are using Firefox 29 or later, version 1.1 of the Sync Server – which this guide covers – will not work. Sync Server 1.5 or later is required. I’ve written another guide you can follow to install the correct version of Firefox Sync Server for Firefox version 29 or later, you can find it here.

As a sort of intermission for my PRISM Break series of entries, I’ve written this step-by-step guide to how you can install your own, private Firefox Sync Server on Ubuntu. I’ve tested it on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and Ubuntu 13.04 and it works fine there, and there’s a good chance you can follow this guide and successfully install the Sync Server on other versions of Ubuntu and other Debian based Linux distributions as well.

What is the Firefox Sync Server anyway? Well, if you are using the Firefox browser, you can use a feature called Sync to synchronize add-ons, bookmarks, settings and other browser data across multiple browsers. The easiest way to achieve this is to use the Sync Servers the Mozilla foundation provides, but to get even better privacy, you can install your very own Firefox Sync Server.

This guide assumes that yo have root privileges and a basic understanding of how to edit text files in Ubuntu (for instance with vim). It’s also convenient that you can access your server from the internet – or you’ll only be able to synchronize across all the browsers you are using on your local network, and that’s kind of lame, don’t you think?

Anyway. Here’s how you install the Firefox Sync Server on a freshly installed copy of Ubuntu.

PRISM Break: The Web Browser

In this series of entries (at least I hope it will turn into a series) on how to get as much privacy on the internet as possible, we’ll start with your core tool: The web browser.

Both the operating system you are using and your hardware is further down the stack and could also bleed information about you like a ruptured artery, but we’ll focus on what you can easily replace. Moving to a totally new operating system can be a lot of hassle for most people, and very few of us are capable of building our own hardware – but the web browser should be replaceable without too much effort.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has set up a site, PRIM Break (you really didn’t think I’d come up with this wonderful pun myself, did you?), where they list a lot of software alternatives with better privacy compared to the software people would normally use.

Their web browser suggestion is Firefox.

PRISM Break: Prologue

Unless you’ve been hiding in the woods since the beginning of June, the words PRISM and XKeystore and the name Edward Snowden should be familiar to you. But there is no harm in refreshing your memory a little:

Edward Snowden was an employee of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton at the National Security Agency (NSA), the central producer and manager of signals intelligence for the United States. During his employment at the NSA, Snowden gained access to some of the US government’s most highly-classified secrets. On May 20, he arrived in Hong Kong with four laptops with classified documents and on June 1, he was interviewed by two Guardian journalists.

On June 5 The Guardian breaked its first exclusive story based on the documents Snowden gained access to, revealing a secret court order showing that the US government had forced the telecoms giant Verizon to hand over the phone records of millions of Americans. The next day, a second story revealed the existence of the previously undisclosed programme PRISM, which internal NSA documents claim gives the agency “direct access” to data held by Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants.

The tech companies naturally deny that they have set up “back door access” to their systems for the US government. Admitting such a thing could potentially be commercial suicide for the companies. But, for all intents and purposes, we can assume that these back doors exists. Why? First off all; it’s every intelligence agency, security agency and nervous government’s wet dream: To know just about everything about everyone. And considering how much we use the internet today, it’s a fantastic source of information. Secondly; it’s not that much of a technical challenge to get the kind of back door access PRISM is supposed to have. Install a man-in-the-middle at the right location, and you can listen in on pretty much everything. And last, but not least, all the companies can easily be persuaded to comply: Install the back doors or you’re not allowed to operate. This has happened before and one example is BlackBerry: The company was not allowed to operate in India for some time because the Indian government was unable to intercept BlackBerry’s secure corporate mail and messaging services.

But why should you care about PRISM, the NSA and that your own and foreign governments are listening in on everything you say and reading everything you write? The average citizen, and it’s a pretty good chance you are an average citizen, isn’t doing or planning to do anything illegal. So does it really matter that they know everything about you and every move you make?

Yes. Yes, it does. It actually matters a great deal and here’s why.