HTTP Strict Transport Security becomes Internet standard

The technology to prevent some types of attacks against HTTPS connections is now mature, but adoption is low

By Lucian Constantin, IDG News Service |  Security

A Web security policy mechanism that promises to make HTTPS-enabled websites more resilient to various types of attacks has been approved and released as an Internet standard -- but despite support from some high-profile websites, adoption elsewhere is still low.

HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) allows websites to declare themselves accessible only over HTTPS (HTTP Secure) and was designed to prevent hackers from forcing user connections over HTTP or abusing mistakes in HTTPS implementations to compromise content integrity.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the body responsible for developing and promoting Internet standards, published the HSTS specification as an official standards document, RFC 6797, on Monday. IETF's Web Security Working Group had been working on it since 2010, when it was first submitted as a draft by Jeff Hodges from PayPal, Collin Jackson from Carnegie Mellon University and Adam Barth from Google.

HSTS prevents so-called mixed content issues from affecting the security and integrity of HTTPS websites. Mixed content situations occur when scripts or other resources embedded into an HTTPS-enabled website are loaded from a third-party location over an insecure connection. This can be the result of a development error or it can be intentional.

When the browser loads the insecure resource it makes a request over plain HTTP and can also send the user's session cookie along with it. An attacker that can intercept the request using networking sniffing techniques can use the cookie to hijack the user's account.

The HSTS mechanism also prevents man-in-the-middle attacks, where the attacker is in a position to intercept a user's connection with a website and force his browser to access the site's HTTP version instead of HTTPS. This technique is known as HTTPS or SSL stripping, and there are tools available to automate it.

When the browser connects over HTTPS to a website that supports HSTS, the site's strict transport security policy is saved and remembered for a specified amount of time. From that point forward, as long as the cached policy doesn't expire, the browser will refuse to initiate insecure connections with that website.

The HSTS policy is transmitted through an HTTP response header field called Strict-Transport-Security. The same header can be used to update and renew the policy.

HSTS is one of the best things to have happened to SSL because it fixes some of the mistakes made when originally designing the protocol 18 years ago, Ivan Ristic, director of engineering at security firm Qualys, said on Thursday. It also addresses the changes that have occurred since then in how Web browsers operate today, he said.

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