HTTPS For Everyone

Table of Contents

I received the following message from one of my Facebook friends the other day: > “Facebook isn't using HTTPS by default any more, so your PC might > get HACKED!”

This message was very useful to many of my friend's Facebook friends. Also, I'm a big fan of using HTTPS, so I'm glad that she was helping her friends have a more secure web browsing experience. Statements like this, however, show that many smart, tech-savy and well-educated people are very confused by the concept of HTTPS. They don't understand what it can and can't do, which causes them to miss out on a lot of its benefits and expose themselves to threats. I therefore decided to put together a simple, layman's guide to using HTTPS. I hope that it will help clear some confusion. ## Caveat

I am by no means a security expert, and I can't guarantee that anything that you do online will be 100% safe. No system is perfect, and that includes HTTPS. So who am I? I'm a systems engineer with 11 years of experience running large applications on top of complex systems. During that time, I've worked with a lot of web applications, and I have learned a thing or two about security. My knowledge is incomplete, but it's complete enough to help a lot of my friends. ## What Is HTTPS?

/(The following is the scariest paragraph in this. If it seems like a foreign language to you, that's OK. Just keep reading and everything will be explained in English :) )/ HTTPS stands for SSL over HTTP. HTTP*is the protocol that your web browser uses to talk to web sites. *SSL is a an application that is used to encrypt data. So HTTPS is a system for exchanging encrypted data between web browsers and web sites. Ok, so what did all of that mean? Well, first let's talk about HTTP. This is just the way that web browsers and web sites have agreed to talk to each other. That's it. Nothing too fancy. SSL (pronounced “ess-ess-ehl”) is a program for encryption, but what's that? Well you can think of *encryption*as a way of turning data into gibberish that very few other people will be able to read. Encryption can be really simple, like Pig Latin, or incredibly sophisticated, like the encryption that your web browser users. So HTTPS is the system that allows you to encrypt your secret information so that only you and your target web site (e.g. your bank's web site, Facebook) can understand it. If anyone who is between your web browser and your target web site tries to intercept the traffic, they won't be able to decipher it. This is the #1 benefit of HTTPS, and if you only read one paragraph in this article, I hope that it's this one. Now this concept really confused me when I first started learning about networking. Who on earth would read my internet traffic while it's moving along the network? Well, there are points between your web browser and your target web site where third-parties could be intercepting your web traffic. These “points” are called hops, and there are an arbitrary number of them between your web browser and any web site that you may visit. The following are examples of hops: - Your ISP's servers - Your employer's firewall - Your email provider - The wireless access point that you're using at the coffee house

Anyone who has access to any of these hops can potentially intercept your web traffic and read private things like passwords and cookie information. And if this traffic isn't encrypted using something like SSL, then it's trivially simple to do. So that's the number one reason why SSL is so awesome. But there's one more great feature too. For a web site owner to use SSL, they need  to have a certificate*installed on their servers that *guarantees their identity. You can think of it like a driver's license for web applications. This driver's license ensures that really is when you use the HTTPS address. When you use an HTTP address, no certificate is used, so you really don't have any way of ensuring that you're not using a fake copy of a web site. So how does your browser know that's certificate is legitimate? Well, it' a fairly complex system, and it's not 100% perfect 100% of the time, but the short answer is that there are 3rd-parties that certify SSL certificates. And your web browser is configured to use those third parties to double-check the identity of the HTTPS addresses that you visit. ## What Isn't HTTPS?

Ok, so now we know that HTTPS encrypts your communication with web servers and certifies web site owners. So now let's talk about what it /can't/do (despite what your friends tell you :) ) ### It doesn't protect your computer from hackers and viruses

Remember, HTTPS doesn't have anything to do with protecting your physical computer. It's all about protecting your web traffic and verifying web site owners. Protecting yourself from hackers and viruses is a big subject, but here are a few solid recommendations: - If you are asked to patch your computer or web browser, do it as quickly as you can. If you have the option of patching automatically, then do it. Also, don't forget that you need to regularly patch Flash and Java. - Use an anti-virus - Use a hardware-based firewall. Most consumer-grade wireless access points (aka routers) have one of these built-in. - Supervise your children when they use a computer - Use a web browser plugin like Web of Trust (WOT) to help you identify potentially-hazardous web sites.

“But wait” you say. “Won't using HTTPS help keep my Facebook account from being hacked?”. Yes, it definitely will. What I'm talking about now is protecting your physical computer*from bad people, *not your web site accounts. ### It doesn't protect your content once it's on a web site

Ok, here's a hypothetical. Let's say that you write a very sincere, emotional and (most of all) private message to one of your friends using Facebook (or any other messaging account). A few days later, you learn that a bunch of Facebook servers have been hacked, and you worry that someone else might publish your super-personal message for all of the world to see. But you have nothing to worry about, right? HTTPS encrypts all of that stuff, so the bad guys can't read it, right? Well, you would be half right. HTTPS does encrypt your web communication, but it doesn't encrypt the data once it's on the web site. That level of security is handled by the web site administrators, and it varies from great to awful. *Please note*that most web sites do *nothing to encrypt your content*once it's on their site. Also, please note that most web sites also do a pretty crappy job of protecting their servers from hackers. So if this is a concern, what can you do? If you want to store personal information on a web site, one thing you can do is insist that the site administrators encrypt the content on the server. If they don't, then find another web site that will listen to you. encrypts the content on their servers, and it's reason #47 that they're so awesome :) In the end, the best defense it to think twice beforeing something online. ## When Should I Use HTTPS?

You certainly don't need to use HTTPS with every web site, and most sites still don't support it. So when should you use it? ### Required

You simply should not use one of the following web sites unless they support HTTPS. - Banking And Finance Sites Including PayPal - If your bank makes you do anything involving your password or you personal account information without HTTPS, then get a new bank.


  • Email and Facebook Passwords
    • It's a very good idea to use HTTPS with any email or social networking site, especially if you like to use that site in a public place using a shared WIFI connection. It protects you from having people steal your passwords and your cookies.
    • It's important to secure your email and social network accounts because some of them can be used to obtain bank passwords. Also, people may try to use these accounts to scam money out of your friends and family.
  • Online Storage Sites
  • Any site where you exchange personal information

How Do I Know If I'm Using HTTPS?

This is a complex and delicate question, so I will need to defer to the experts. Here's how you can determine if you are using HTTPS properly in all of the major browsers: - Internet Explorer (see "How can I tell if I have a secure conneciton?") - Firefox


Facebook Hacking Threat Revisited

Ok, so let's revisit the statement that I started this article with: > “Facebook isn't using HTTPS by default any more, so your PC might > get HACKED!”

Ok, so knowing what we do now, what's the risk? 1. The communication between your web browser and Facebook won't be encrypted, so anyone could steal things like your password and cookies (which can be used to spoof your identity).

  1. You can't be sure that is really because the site isn't using a certificate. Someone could therefore trick you into using a fake version of the web site.

Why are these risks? In either case, someone could use your Facebook account to scam your friends and distribute malware. And if you use Facebook as your primary e-mail account (which you can do now), then they may be able to obtain passwords for web site accounts that are tied to your credit card or bank accounts.


Ok, so I hope this helped de-mystify HTTPS a bit. Good luck staying safe and remember that it pays to be at least a little paranoid about sharing information online.