Only 1 in 20 HTTPS servers correctly implements HTTP Strict Transport Security, a widely-supported security feature that prevents visitors making unencrypted HTTP connections to a server.
The remaining 95% are therefore vulnerable to trivial connection hijacking attacks, which can be exploited to carry out effective phishing, pharming and man-in-the-middle attacks. An attacker can exploit these vulnerabilities whenever a user inadvertently tries to access a secure site via HTTP, and so the attacker does not even need to spoof a valid TLS certificate. Because no crypto-wizardry is required to hijack an HTTP connection, these attacks are far easier to carry out than those that target TLS, such as the recently announced DROWN attack.
The growth of HTTPS has been a mostly positive step in the evolution of the internet, enabling encrypted communications between more users and websites than ever before. Many high profile sites now use HTTPS by default, and millions of TLS certificates are currently in use on the web. With companies like Let’s Encrypt offering free certificates and automated management tools, it is also easier than ever to deploy an HTTPS website that will be trusted by all modern browsers.
The primary purpose of a TLS certificate is to allow a browser to verify that it is communicating with the correct website. For example, if https://www.example.com uses a valid TLS certificate, then a man-in-the-middle attacker would not be able to hijack a browser’s connection to this site unless he is also able to obtain a valid certificate for that domain.
A man-in-the-middle attack like this is generally not possible if the initial request from the customer uses HTTPS.
It would be extremely difficult for the attacker to obtain a valid certificate for a domain he does not control, and using an invalid certificate would cause the victim’s browser to display an appropriate warning message. Consequently, man-in-the-middle attacks against HTTPS services are hard to pull off, and often not very successful. However, there are plenty of realistic opportunities to use the unencrypted HTTP protocol to attack most HTTPS websites.
HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS)
Encrypted communications are an essential requirement for banks and other financial websites, but HTTPS alone is not sufficient to defend these sites against man-in-the-middle attacks. Astonishingly, many banking websites lurk amongst the 95% of HTTPS servers that lack a simple feature that renders them still vulnerable to pharming and man-in-the-middle attacks. This missing feature is HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS), and only 1 in 20 secure servers currently make use of it, even though it is supported by practically all modern browsers.
Each secure website that does not implement an HSTS policy can be attacked simply by hijacking an HTTP connection that is destined for it. This is a surprisingly feasible attack vector, as there are many ways in which a user can inadvertently end up connecting via HTTP instead of HTTPS.
Manually typed URLs often result in an initial insecure request, as most users do not explicitly type in the protocol string (http:// or https://). When no protocol is given, the browser will default to HTTP – unless there is an appropriate HSTS policy in force.
To improve accessibility, most secure websites also run an HTTP service to redirect users to the corresponding HTTPS site – but this makes them particularly prone to man-in-the-middle attacks if there is no HSTS policy in force. Not only would many users be accustomed to visiting the HTTP site first, but anyone else who visits the site via an old bookmark or search engine result might also initially access the site via an insecure HTTP address. Whenever this happens, the attacker can hijack the initial HTTP request and prevent the customer being redirected to the secure HTTPS website.
This type of attack can be automated with the sslstrip tool, which transparently hijacks HTTP traffic on a network and converts HTTPS links and redirects into HTTP. This type of exploit is sometimes regarded as a protocol downgrade attack, but strictly speaking, it is not: rather than downgrading the protocol, it simply prevents the HTTP protocol being upgraded to HTTPS.
NatWest’s online banking website at www.nwolb.com lacks an HSTS policy and also offers an HTTP service to redirect its customers to the HTTPS site. This setup is vulnerable to the type of man-in-the-middle attack described above.
Vulnerable sites can be attacked on a massive scale by compromising home routers or DNS servers to point the target hostname at a server that is controlled by the attacker (a so-called “pharming” attack). Some smaller scale attacks can be carried out very easily – for example, if an attacker sets up a rogue Wi-Fi access point to provide internet access to nearby victims, he can easily influence the results of their DNS lookups.
Even if a secure website uses HTTPS exclusively (i.e. with no HTTP service at all), then man-in-the-middle attacks are still possible. For example, if a victim manually typeswww.examplebank.com into his browser’s address bar—without prefixing it with https://—the browser will attempt to make an unencrypted HTTP connection tohttp://www.examplebank.com, even if the genuine site does not run an HTTP service. If this hostname has been pharmed, or is otherwise subjected to a man-in-the-middle attack, the attacker can hijack the request nonetheless and eavesdrop the connection as it is relayed to the genuine secure site, or serve phishing content directly to the victim.
In short, failing to implement an HSTS policy on a secure website means attackers can carry out man-in-the-middle attacks without having to obtain a valid TLS certificate. Many victims would fall for these attacks, as they can be executed over an unencrypted HTTP connection, thus avoiding any of the browser’s tell-tale warnings about invalid certificates.
Implementing HSTS: A simple one-liner
The trivial man-in-the-middle attacks described above can be thwarted by implementing an appropriate HSTS policy. A secure website can do this simply by setting a single HTTP header in its responses:
This header can only be set over an HTTPS connection, and instructs compatible browsers toonly access the site over HTTPS for the next year (31,536,000 seconds = 1 year). This is the most common
max-age value, used by nearly half of all HTTPS servers. After this HSTS policy has been applied, even if a user manually prefixes the site’s hostname with http://, the browser will ignore this and access the site over HTTPS instead.
The combination of HSTS and HTTPS therefore provides a good defence against pharming attacks, as the attacker will not be able to redirect and intercept plaintext HTTP traffic when a client obeys the HSTS policy, nor will he be able to present a valid TLS certificate for the site he is impersonating.
The attacker cannot even rely on a small proportion his victims unwisely ignoring the use of an invalid certificate, as browsers must regard this situation as a hard fail when an HSTS policy is in force. The browser will simply not let the victim access the site if it finds an invalid certificate, nor will it allow an exception to be added.
When Google Chrome encounters an invalid certificate for a site that has an effective HSTS policy, the victim is not allowed to bypass the browser’s warning message or add an exception.
To prevent other types of attack, it is also wise to add the
includeSubDomains directive to ensure that every possible subdomain of a site is protected by HSTS. This mitigates cookie injection and session fixation attacks that could be executed by impersonating an HTTP site on a non-existent subdomain such as foo.www.example.com, and using it to set a cookie which would be sent to the secure site at https://www.example.com. This directive can be enabled like so:
Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=31536000; includeSubDomains
However, some thought is required before taking the carte blanche approach of including all subdomains in an HSTS policy. The website’s administrators must ensure that every single one of its subdomains supports HTTPS for at least the duration specified by the
max-age parameter, otherwise users of these subdomains risk being locked out.
Setting an HSTS policy will also protect first time visitors who habitually use search bars or search engines to reach their destination. For example, typing “paypal” into Google’s HTTPS search engine will yield a link to https://www.paypal.com, because Google will always link to the HTTPS version of a website if an appropriate HSTS policy exists.
HSTS is clearly an important security feature, but there are several circumstances under which its benefits will not work. Because HSTS directives are delivered via an HTTP header (over an HTTPS connection), HSTS can only instruct a browser to only use HTTPS after the browser’s first visit to a secure website.
Men-in-the-middle can therefore still carry out attacks against users who have:
- Never before visited the site.
- Recently reinstalled their operating system.
- Recently reinstalled their browser.
- Switched to a new browser.
- Switched to a new device (e.g. mobile phone).
- Deleted their browser’s cache.
- Not visited the site within the past year (or however long the
max-age period lasts).
These vulnerabilities can be eliminated by using HSTS Preloading, which ensures that the site’s HSTS policy is distributed to supported browsers before the customer’s first visit.
Website administrators can use the form at https://hstspreload.appspot.com/ to request for domains to be included in the HSTS Preload list maintained by Google. Each site must have a valid certificate, redirect all HTTP traffic to HTTPS, and serve all subdomains over HTTPS. The HSTS header served from each site must specify a
max-age of at least 18 weeks (10,886,400 seconds) and include the
It can take several months for domains to be reviewed and propagated to the latest stable versions of Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Edge and Chrome. When domains are added to the preload list, all users of these browsers will benefit from the security offered by HSTS, even if they have never visited the sites before.
HSTS is widely supported, but not widely implemented. Nearly all modern browsers obey HSTS policies, including Internet Explorer 11, Microsoft Edge, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera – yet less than 5% of secure websites enable this important security feature.
Secure websites that do not use HSTS are trivial to attack if the attacker can hijack a victim’s web traffic, but it is even easier to defeat such attacks by implementing an HSTS policy. This begs the question of why so few websites are using HSTS.
The HSTS specification (RFC 6797) was published in 2012, and so it can hardly be considered a new technology any more. Nonetheless, many website administrators might still be unaware of its existence, or may not yet feel ready to commit to running an HTTPS-only website. These are probably the most significant reasons for its low uptake.
Some website administrators have even disabled HSTS by explicitly setting a
max-age of 0 seconds. This has the effect of switching off any previously established HSTS policies, but this backpedalling can only take proper effect if every client revisits the secure site after the
max-age has been set to zero. When a site implements an HSTS policy, it is effectively committed to maintaining its HTTPS service for as long as the largest
max-age it has ever specified, otherwise it risks denying access to infrequent visitors. Nearly 4% of all HTTPS servers that use the
Strict-Transport-Security header currently set a
max-age of zero, including Twitter’st.co URL-shortener.
Browser support for HSTS can also introduce some privacy concerns. By initiating requests to several distinct hostnames (some of which enable HSTS), a hostile webpage can establish a “supercookie” to uniquely identify the client browser during subsequent visits, even if the user deletes the browser’s conventional cookies. The browser will remember which pattern of hostnames had HSTS enabled, thus allowing the supercookie to persist. However, this privacy concern only affects clients and does not serve as an excuse for websites to avoid implementing their own HSTS policies.
Implementing an HSTS policy is very simple and there are no practical downsides when a site already operates entirely over HTTPS. This makes it even more surprising to see many banks failing to use HSTS, especially on their online banking platforms. This demonstrates poor security practices where it matters the most, as these are likely to be primary targets of pharming attacks.