Thursday, October 27, 2011

How secure is HTTPS today? How often is it attacked?

This is part 1 of a series on the security of HTTPS and TLS/SSL

HTTPS is a lot more secure than HTTP! If a site uses accounts, or publishes material that people might prefer to read in private, the site should be protected with HTTPS.

Unfortunately, is still feasible for some attackers to break HTTPS. Leaving aside cryptographic protocol vulnerabilities, there are structural ways for its authentication mechanism to be fooled for any domain, including,,,, or any other incredibly sensitive service:

1.  Break into any Certificate Authority (or compromise the web applications that feed into it). As we learned from the SSL Observatory project, there are 600+ Certificate Authorities that your browser will trust; the attacker only needs to find one of those 600 that she is capable of breaking into. This has been happening with catastrophic results.

2.  Compromise a router near any Certificate Authority, so that you can read the CA’s outgoing email or alter incoming DNS packets, breaking domain validation. Or similarly, compromise a router near the victim site to read incoming email or outgoing DNS responses. Note that SMTPS email encryption does not help because STARTTLS is vulnerable to downgrade attacks.

3.  Compromise a recursive DNS server that is used by a Certificate Authority, or forge a DNS entry for a victim domain (which has sometimes been quite easy). Again, this defeats domain validation.

4.  Attack some other network protocol, such as TCP or BGP, in a way that grants access to emails to the victim domain.

5.  A government could order a Certificate Authority to produce a malicious certificate for any domain. There is circumstantial evidence that this may happen. And because CAs are located in 52+ countries, there are lots of governments that can do this, including some deeply authoritarian ones. Also, governments could easily perform any of the above network attacks against CAs in other countries.

In short: there are a lot of ways to break HTTPS/TLS/SSL today, even when websites do everything right. As currently implemented, the Web’s security protocols may be good enough to protect against attackers with limited time and motivation, but they are inadequate for a world in which geopolitical and businesses contests are increasingly being played out through attacks against the security of computer systems.                       More