Time to UP the Ante on SSL

As I have been writing about lately, the browser makers, Google and Firefox – and to a much lesser extent Microsoft, are pushing the envelope to get web site operators to switch to always on SSL (AKA HTTPS).  Well, that is a good start, but certainly not the end game.

Why do they care?  Because it is much harder to eavesdrop on HTTPS traffic than it is to eavesdrop on HTTP traffic.  Remember, eavesdropping is a bit of a loose term.  Not only can someone listen in on what you are sending, but they can also fake the RESPONSE back from a web site.  In that case, you THINK that what you are getting back in your browser is coming from a web site you trust, but in reality, you are seeing what the hacker wants you to see.  Sometimes that means changing something here or there, but other times it could mean a wholesale replacement of the web page.

While not impossible to do this under HTTPS (also called SSL or TLS – while there are subtle differences between these, for the purpose of this conversation, they are the same), it is way more difficult for a hacker to do.

But there are a lot of subtleties when it comes to how a web site implements HTTPS.  Most of the time web site operators choose the easiest one;  on rare occasion, they choose the best options.  I will briefly talk about some of the options, but for the most part, it is geek-speak. There is one option that will be the focus of the rest of this post that is important for an end user to understand.

First the geeky part –

There are a number of things that the web site operator should do to enhance security; here are just a couple.  These are out of the user’s control, but we can help the web site operator get closer to the best option instead of the easiest option.

The web site should enable HSTS or HTTP strict transport security.  This ensures that even if YOU don’t enter the S in HTTPS, the browser will do it for you.

HTTP Public Key Pinning – when this is enabled it ensures that an attacker cannot use an SSL certificate obtained illegally from another certificate authority to pretend that they are the site you intend to visit.

Secure cookies – setting secure option helps to protect your information from being stolen by other web sites.

Now here is the part that the user can easily see.

There are two kinds of SSL certificates; one is called domain validation (DV) and the other is called extended validation (EV).

While we talk about the HTTPS encrypting the traffic so that no one can eavesdrop on it, there is another feature of the SSL certificate and that is to ensure that the owner of the web site is, to a much higher level of assurance, who you think it is.

DV certificates ONLY encrypt the traffic to prevent eavesdropping.  Extended validation certificates provide a level of assurance that you are talking to who you think you are talking to.

First, an example.

Here is a screen shot of Vectra Bank’s home page:

Click for a larger view

Notice in the address bar, on the left side, you have the padlock and the word secure.

Here is a screen shot of J.P. Morgan Chase Bank’s home page:

Click for a larger view

Notice to the right of the padlock and the left of the address it says JP Morgan Chase and Co. [US] .

Vectra is using a domain validation certificate and Chase is using an extended validation certificate.

What this means is that you have a higher level of assurance that, when you visit the Chase web site, that it is really owned by JP Morgan Chase and Co.  That is the value of EV certificates.

OK, so that is a theoretical conversation, let’s bring it down to the practical.

Guess how many web sites have an SSL certificate that includes the name PAYPAL?  When you visit Paypal and enter your credit card, you would like to know that it really is The real Paypal.

Maybe 10?  How about 20?  Some of you probably said 1.

The real answer is 15,270.  And that is just from one certificate authority, Let’s Encrypt.  Of those 15,000 plus domains,  over 14,000 were for phishing web sites.

If you are a user and you see the SSL padlock (which is all you get with a DV certificate), you have no way of knowing whether you are visiting a legitimate web site.

Unfortunately, many of the biggies haven’t figured out this is a problem.  Facebook.  Linkedin.  Amazon.  They all use DV certificates.  That could be OK as long as you know what the domain address is and you type it in manually, but for many of these sites, they have related domain names that contain the company’s name but are different from the company’s main web site.

If we use that Paypal example, probably some of those 15,000 plus domains are actually owned by Paypal, but which ones?

The moral of the story is, as a consumer, look for the extended validation and ask questions if you don’t find it.

Information for this post came from Bleeping Computer.


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