This article originally appeared in The Internet Monitor 2014: Reflections on the Digital World.
Once, there was an Internet. And it was a happy place with no security concerns whatsoever, because only a dozen or so people got to use it.
That fairy tale is not the world we live in today, and thanks to high profile problems like Heartbleed and Shellshock, more people recognize it. Unfortunately, some of the design ethos from that fantasyland still impacts us. The web isn’t secure for the uses it sees today—and HTTP was never designed to be. SSL, intended to provide a secure connection layer between systems, has evolved through multiple versions into TLS, each attempting to reduce the vulnerabilities of the prior.
The vulnerabilities and problems of HTTPS, while not numberless, are legion. And each of these vulnerabilities presents an opportunity for an adversary to defeat the goals of Internet users—whether they seek financial security, privacy from government surveillance, or network agnosticism.
What is HTTPS, anyway?
HTTPS isn't a standalone protocol; HTTP over TLS is two separate protocols, isolated from one another. The effects of one protocol's actions on another are rarely studied as much as the actual protocols themselves. That isolation has led to vulnerabilities—using compression in HTTP to improve transfer speed is good, except that the secrecy goals of TLS can be subverted through variable-sized content, as in the BREACH security exploit.
Who do you trust?
TLS certificates are issued by certificate authorities (CAs); these CAs sign the certificates that a web site presents to its users to ‘prove’ who they are. You could almost consider them like a driver’s license—issued by some authority. But who are these authorities? They are the dozens of entities—some commercial, some governmental—who are trusted by our browsers. Unlike a driver’s license, any trusted CA can issue a certificate for any website—it’s like having your local library issue an ID card for a Pentagon employee or one government issue certificates for another government’s website.
Illegitimately gaining a trusted certificate can be achieved in at least three distinct paths:
- compromise a CA publishing interface, either directly or by compromising a user’s credentials;
- for Domain Validated certificates, have publication control of the website that the CA can observe (by compromising DNS, the publication interface, or the server directly); or
- by modifying the browser’s list of trusted certificates. This is a common practice in many enterprises, to enable the enterprise to run a CA for their own websites, or to deploy a web filtering proxy. But these CAs are then able to issue certificates to any website.
Once an adversary has a certificate, they merely need to also become a ‘man in the middle’ (MITM), able to intercept and modify traffic between a client and a server. With this power set, they are able to read and modify all traffic on that connection.
Certificate Transparency (CT) is an initiative to begin monitoring and auditing the CAs to determine whether they have issued rogue certificates and to provide browsers an interface to collectively validate certificates. This may lead to a reduction in the number of trusted CAs to only those that don’t behave in a rogue fashion. There is another possible mitigation called DANE (DNSSEC Assertion of Named Entities), where the information about the validity of certificates/authorities for hostnames/domains is published through DNS and signed by DNSSEC, reducing the number of trusted entities who can publish SSL keys.
I can haz TLS?
Until recent versions of TLS that incorporate Server Name Indication (SNI), a server was required to first present the certificate that declared for which hosts it was able to conduct an HTTPS session. This meant that no IP address could have more than one certificate. In HTTP, a single IP address can, through virtual hosting, have many hostnames, as the client will signal to the server which hostname from which it would like a web page. While the advent of multi-domain certificates has allowed multiple hostnames, it hasn’t provided the freedom to have ‘unlimited’ TLS-secured hostnames. SNI is an extension to TLS that provides this capability, allowing a browser to tell a server what certificate it would like to be presented.
But SNI isn’t supported by all browsers—most notably, Windows XP and early versions of Android. The former is on its way out, but the latter is still being deployed on lower-end feature phones, especially in the developing world. And unfortunately, there are no good strategies for supporting both SNI and non-SNI clients available today. Until either SNI is fully supported, or IPv6 adoption achieves critical mass, many websites will not be able to have HTTPS.
TLS is only Transport Layer Security
Often, a client isn’t talking directly to the content provider—there is some other entity in the middle. It might be an enterprise proxy; it might be a network operator gateway; it might be a content delivery network. In these cases, the TLS connection only provides secrecy on the first leg—the client has to hope that the secrecy is preserved across the public Internet. Few of the mid-point entities provide any assertions about how they’ll handle the security of the forward connections that were prompted from a TLS connection; some even advertise the convenience of having the ‘flexibility’ to downgrade from HTTPS to merely HTTP.
Until HTTP contains a signaling mechanism through which the mid-points can communicate about the TLS choices they’ve made, a client will not know whether a TLS connection is robust (or even exists!) across public links.
TLS isn’t privacy
TLS provides encryption for the information contained inside a request, thus hiding the specific content you’re engaging with. It’s useful for hiding the specific details of similarly shaped data, like social security numbers or credit cards; but very poor at hiding things like activism or research. The design of the system doesn’t conceal the ‘shape’ of your traffic—and the Wikipedia pages for Occupy Central have a different shape than the shape of the Wikipedia page for the Large Hadron Collider. It also doesn’t prevent traffic analysis—while the contents of a user-generated video may be secret, the identity of the systems (and hence the users) that uploaded and downloaded it aren’t. Some privacy systems like Tor may provide useful protections, but at the cost of performance.
Don’t trust the lock
All together, the architecture of TLS and HTTPS doesn’t provide enough safety against all adversaries in all situations. There are some steps underway that will improve safety, but many hazards will still remain, even absent the highly publicized implementation defects. But these steps will increase the cost for adversaries, sometimes in measurable and observable ways.
That icon lock in your browser is useful for securing your commerce and finances, but be cautious about trusting it with your life.