Is it time for “Always on SSL”?

February 11, 2015 | By Kevin Judge

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SSL is widely used today to secure communication on web pages that send sensitive information to a web server, such as login credentials or financial data. Indeed, it is essential for e-Commerce. Who would give their credit card data if they knew that it could be intercepted by hackers?

It has become increasingly apparent that only securing such submission pages can be inadequate and there is now a call for web sites to be secured “End to End”, applying SSL to every page on the site. This is known as “Always on SSL”.

Can the “Always on SSL” approach make a site more secure? Absolutely, and it can improve search engine rankings too.

Some of the vulnerabilities that can be prevented by implementing Always-On SSL include session hijacking, side-jacking, and similarly, man-in- the-middle attacks.

Security researchers invented a Mozilla browser add-on called Firesheep that has unfortunately been very useful to hackers to commit session hijacking. The attacker uses Firesheep to easily hijack user sessions over open Wi-Fi connections, such as at a cyber cafe. When someone attempts to connect to a known website it uses that website’s session protocols to take over and the hacker impersonates the user. This could allow the attacker to alter the user’s profile including the login credentials.

Sidejacking is an attack that takes advantage of consumers visiting unencrypted HTTP web pages after they have logged into a site. Sidejacking is possible when website uses SSL only to establish the session cookie, and then reverts back to HTTP/port 80. It allows hackers to intercept cookies used to retain user specific information such as login credentials when they are transmitted without the protection of SSL encryption.

Cookies can contain an indicator as to whether it should be secure or not. Theft of cookies that are not marked “secure” can lead to identity theft and financial fraud.

Another security tool used by hackers to compromise sessions called “SSL Strip”. It was originally created to demonstrate how an attacker might trick users by “stripping” SSL from the user’s session. The attacker prepares his machine to act as a router in a “man in the middle attack” on the local network with the ability monitor all traffic and changes destination ports and forward packets. The attacker will change routing tables and arp-spoof the victim’s machine by telling it that his machine is the local router/gateway.

SSL Strip running on the attacker’s machine then is able to route the victim’s communications as if it were the network router. If the user is paying attention, they may notice that the url address changes from “https” to “http”.

This is exactly the type of scenario will prevent, ensuring the session data is secure from hackers. It is possible because the first step in the connections, the SSL handshake is the least secure. SSL Strip exploits this transition from http to https by jumping in even before the SSL connection is established.

Google has recognized the importance of all pages using SSL. They are now rewarding pages secured with SSL with higher page rankings. Many high profile web sites, such as for Microsoft and Facebook have embraced Always on SSL as the best way to protect their sites and their users.

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