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What will the HSTS protocol mean for Web security?

Matthew Pascucci discusses what effect the new HSTS protocol could have on Web security and on preventing man-in-the-middle attacks.

What's the likelihood that the IETF's new HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) protocol will have a positive effect on enterprise security?

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HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) is a protocol being designed to enhance Web security. Here's how it works: When a Web browser connects with a website or Web application and receives a special HSTS message in return, that's a queue to the browser that all communications should be transmitted via HTTPS, which is of course much more secure than unencrypted HTTP.

HSTS, which the IETF published in November 2012, will almost certainly have a positive effect on enterprise security. The primary benefit is that it makes it harder for attackers to conduct man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks by tricking browsers into using HTTP to transmit packets instead of HTTPS. However, that then brings us to the question of "How are we going to force every site to use SSL?" In an ideal world, all sites would already be end-to-end encrypted, meaning they would use HTTPS exclusively, but realistically some site owners don't have the money or the expertise to do so.

Many popular browsers like Chrome and Firefox already have features installed to follow this protocol, so it's definitely possible that enterprises will see positive security effects on the browser side very quickly. There are also browser add-ons like HTTPS Everywhere and Force TLS that help create SSL connections when possible so as to not communicate over clear text.

I would love to see this protocol become widely used across the Web, with both browser makers and site owners working together to create a more secure World Wide Web. However, I get the same feeling with the HSTS protocol that I get with DNSSEC -- why can't we get it done? It takes both sides to work out this problem. Hopefully with a little bit of evangelism, HSTS will become a standard for securing Web connections.

This was last published in March 2013

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