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Perspectives: SSL No Security Blanket

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Encryption cannot patch the holes created by insecure software.


Security practitioners love SSL, and with good reason. It is well designed with support for multiple encryption protocols, and is easily reconfigured in case any should get cracked or outdated. It is an incredibly useful tool, protecting transactions as they cross otherwise insecure channels such as the Internet. It's also great for certificate-based bilateral authentication, provided of course you actually have the cash and personnel resources to maintain it.

If anything, SSL is too well implemented, and people think it covers all their needs, like a giant security blanket. They forget there is much more to security than just using SSL.

Gene Spafford famously once said, "Using encryption on the Internet is the equivalent of arranging an armored car to deliver credit card information from someone living in a cardboard box to someone living on a park bench." He's still right today.

Although operating systems are more secure than they were 10 years ago, and we are much better at patching them, that isn't sufficient. Dan Geer recently released an extensive paper on trends in the information security industry. Using data from the National Vulnerability Database, he quantitatively showed what we already had intuited: Attackers have moved to targeting applications with great

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success, exploiting cross-site scripting and SQL injection vulnerabilities by the boatload.

Despite what we know and what industry leaders like Microsoft and Oracle have done to make their products more secure, the software industry just doesn't seem to get it. While some Web-based applications display badges from services like Hacker Safe, which actually test for vulnerabilities, these sites are few.

If you look at the average Web-based application, you're lucky if there's a reference in the vendor's privacy policy about use of SSL or a cute badge advertising its SSL vendor. While it is gratifying to know the risk of someone sniffing my credit card number is effectively zero when using a particular Web site, this unfortunately doesn't tell me a single useful thing about the security of the application, and odds are, the security is poor.

This was first published in February 2008

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