22 December 2009

Should The Whole Web Site Be SSL?

Britain has some snowy and cold weather at the moment causing difficulty for people getting to shops or going on holiday, and web retailers are likely to be doing brisk trade if they can still deliver before Christmas.

Photograph of the snow-covered landscape around Gatehouse, Northumberland yesterday 21 December 2009

E-commerce sites are often associated with HTTPS (a combination of HTTP with the SSL/TLS cryptographic protocol). There was a time when HTTPS was used only where absolutely necessary due to the additional encryption/decryption overhead it placed on a user's browser (client) and the web application (server). But what's the situation today?

N.B. the padlock symbol or green/blue coloured address bar (depending upon the type of certificate in use) indicating the use of a "secure" web server, does not mean your data is safe; it shows the server identity is verified to a certain extent and that data in transit between your web browser and the web server is probably safe from interception, if it is configured correctly on the server, the certificate has not expired or been revoked, and you can ensure the content you see is on the site the address bar says it is. It also says nothing about how the organisation and partners that handle the data once it has been received by the web server—they might forward it by email, allow third parties to have access to the server, print the data and leave it unprotected, etc.

Almost all web sites have some aspects that should only be accessible over HTTPS. Any sort of data entry form is likely to include personal information and therefore HTTPS should be used to at least protect the confidentiality of the information in transit. User registration, authentication (log in) and any pages that contain confidential information would also be included. Previously, many search engines did not index HTTPS addresses, but since its use was mainly restricted to content protected by some type of authentication and authorisation, this was never much of a concern.

But nowadays, search engines are indexing HTTPS content and a few web sites are only available using HTTPS. Is this a configuration worth following? In a discussion Ivan Ristić described the additional benefits of HTTPS (HTTP over SSL):

... Even with web sites that do not contain sensitive content (no need for confidentiality), you'd still want SSL to provide authentication (are you seeing the correct web site?) and integrity (has anyone modified content in transit?)... Can you have too much SSL? I don't think so.


So while there are benefits relating to authenticity and integrity, in addition to confidentiality, and dangers to mixing HTTP and HTTPS on the same site due to badly designed authorisation and session management systems, what other issues are there?

Search engines

The most popular search engine robots no longer discriminate whether the content is HTTP or HTTPS, so this is no longer a concern. I am not aware if any adverse effect on search engine optimisation (SEO), other than the effects of changing from HTTP to HTTPS or vice versa which would have to be managed carefully and appropriate permanent redirects set up (also called 301 redirect due to the HTTP response status code of 301 for "moved permanently").

Note that Google, and apparently Yahoo and Microsoft, support the "rel='canonical'" link element and state it can be used for indicating a preference for HTTP vs HTTPS, or vice versa, when pages are available by both. There is also a setting for this choice in Google webmaster tools if you are a site owner. But be careful with allowing both HTTP and HTTPS access to the same page, since this quite often is implemented in a way that adds vulnerabilities to user authentication and session management.

Resources on the server

The server is affected by two aspects—the increased number of requests (see also resources on the client, below) and the overhead of encryption/decryption/building SSL connection. Intermediate proxies should not cache the content and therefore a greater number of requests is to be expected. The additional resources required to serve content using HTTPS are discussed extensively here and in a research paper, i.e. there will be a performance hit, but whether this is a problem depends on your traffic profile, architecture, server utilisation and site's design.

Server side processes

It is possible that any server-side indexing or reporting systems may not support HTTPS and they may need to be updated or configured to work with the different protocol. If you syndicate data to other systems via XML, RSS or web services, these processes will also need to be checked for compatibility.

Traffic management

Network devices that inspect and route internet traffic must be SSL-aware to be able to read and analyse the content. Most modern devices will be able to support this mode of operation.

Client device support

Some devices (e.g. mobile) may not support HTTPS, or HTTPS may not be allowed through firewalls but this is probably less of an issue now. Check if these are issues with your expected users and the devices your site supports.

Address familiarity

Most people will not recognise (or type in) HTTPS addresses and use the common shorthand of the host name (e.g. www.clerkendweller.com) or an alias (e.g. clerkendweller.com) rather than the protocol followed by the full host name. So this would require a redirect from the HTTP address to the HTTPS one, and for many web sites this will be acceptable. For sites of a more sensitive nature, this would have to be handled carefully to protect any session identifiers and still leaves the user potentially vulnerable to a man in the middle (MITM) attack. These are where the redirect is amended and the user taken to a malicious web site instead. If you can rely on users using only the SSL address, perhaps by bookmarking it, you are on safer territory.

Resources on the client

Again there will be a performance hit on the user's client device (e.g. browser of a desktop computer). Much of the time this will not be a problem unless the device already lacks resources (e.g. a mobile device). Then again, due to the lack of caching, more requests will have to be made directly to the server, creating additional lag to download and build content.

Mixed content

Even if all the content from your own site is sent using HTTPS, you may have embedded content such as:

  • client-side web analytics
  • advertisements
  • news feeds
  • widgets
  • images, videos, scripts and other content hosted elsewhere.

These must also all be provided using HTTPS, otherwise the benefit of being HTTPS-only will be lost and users may see "mixed content" warning. But this can be a problem as much third-party content is not available using HTTPS (SSL), notably including Google AdSense, Amazon Affiliates and YouTube. However, Google Analytics does support SSL.

Conclusions and further reading

An all-HTTPS web site provides additional security benefits, but user acceptance and server constraints need to be considered in the site's design and architecture decision making processes. The partial, or full, use of HTTPS (SSL) in a web site needs to be considered carefully during design and development to ensure weaknesses that could be exploited are not built in, and then verified by thorough testing. If you have a heavily consumer-focused web site or include third-party content, some of the choices may have to be on the side of ease of use rather than with the lowest security risk.

"Whole site SSL" should be a serious consideration for "green field" web sites, especially where user authentication is required for any part of the content and for sites where phishing is a major risk (e.g. gaming, web mail, banking). User knowledge and acceptance may be difficult until we see the likes of major banks or large consumer-orientated sites (Google Mail, Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook) use this configuration and and display a warning/educational message to people who go to the non HTTPS site, rather than a redirect.

Posted on: 22 December 2009 at 09:12 hrs

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Good post and summary of the issues.

Please take a look at the new draft STS spec that allows a site to indicate to a user/browser that it should in the future *only* be accessed over HTTPS.

1 Added by Andy Steingruebl Posted on 22 December 2009 at 18:32 hrs
Thanks for reminding me about Strict Transport Security (STS). PayPal will be a good example to encourage uptake by a wider range of web site owners.
2 Added by Clerkendweller Posted on 23 December 2009 at 08:58 hrs
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