Bye bye RFC 2616

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

In August 2007 the IETF HTTPbis work group started to make an update to the HTTP 1.1 specification RFC 2616 (from June 1999) which already was an update to RFC 2068 from 1996. I wasn’t part of the effort back then so I didn’t get to hear the back chatter or what exactly the expectations were on delivery time and time schedule, but I’m pretty sure nobody thought it would take almost seven long years for the update to reach publication status.

On June 6 2014 when RFC 7230 – RFC 7235 were released, the single 176 page document has turned into 6 documents with a total size that is now much larger, and there’s also a whole slew of additional related documents released at the same time.

2616 is deeply carved into my brain so it’ll take some time until I unlearn that, plus the fact that now we need to separate our pointers to one of those separate document instead of just one generic number for the whole thing. Source codes and documents all over now need to be carefully updated to instead refer to the new documents.

And the HTTP/2 work continues to progress at high speed. More about that in a separate blog post soon.

More details on the road from RFC2616 until today can be found in Mark Nottingham’s RFC 2616 is dead.

Less plain-text is better. Right?

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

Every connection and every user on the Internet is being monitored and snooped at to at least some extent every now and then. Everything from the casual firesheep user in your coffee shop, an admin in your ISP, your parents/kids on your wifi network, your employer on the company network, your country’s intelligence service in a national network hub or just a random rogue person somewhere in the middle of all this.

My involvement in HTTP make me mostly view and participate in this discussion with this protocol primarily in mind, but the discussion goes well beyond HTTP and the concepts can (and will?) be applied to most Internet protocols in the future. You can follow some of these discussions in the httpbis group, the UTA group, the tcpcrypt list on twitter and elsewhere.

IETF just published RFC 7258 which states:

Pervasive Monitoring Is a Widespread Attack on Privacy

Passive monitoring

Most networking surveillance can be done entirely passively by just running the correct software and listening in on the correct cable. Because most internet traffic is still plain-text and readable by anyone who wants to read it when the bytes come flying by. Like your postman can read your postcards.

Opportunistic?

Recently there’s been a fierce discussion going on both inside and outside of IETF and other protocol and standards groups about doing “opportunistic encryption” (OE) and its merits and drawbacks. The term, which in itself is being debated and often is said to be better called “opportunistic keying” (OK) instead, is about having protocols transparently (invisible to the user) upgrade plain-text versions to TLS unauthenticated encrypted versions of the protocols. I’m emphasizing the unauthenticated word there because that’s a key to the debate. Recently I’ve been told that the term “opportunistic security” is the term to use instead…

In the way of real security?

Basically the argument against opportunistic approaches tends to be like this: by opportunistically upgrading plain-text to unauthenticated encrypted communication, sysadmins and users in the world will consider that good enough and they will then not switch to using proper, strong and secure authentication encryption technologies. The less good alternative will hamper the adoption of the secure alternative. Server admins should just as well buy a cert for 10 USD and use proper HTTPS. Also, listeners can still listen in on or man-in-the-middle unauthenticated connections if they capture everything from the start of the connection, including the initial key exchange. Or the passive listener will just change to become an active party and this unauthenticated way doesn’t detect that. OE doesn’t prevent snooping.

Isn’t it better than plain text?

The argument for opportunism here is that there will be nothing to the user that shows that it is “upgrading” to something less bad than plain text. Browsers will not show the padlock, clients will not treat the connection as “secure”. It will just silently and transparently make passive monitoring of networks much harder and it will force actors who truly want to snoop on specific traffic to up their game and probably switch to active monitoring for more cases. Something that’s much more expensive for the listener. It isn’t about the cost of a cert. It is about setting up and keeping the cert up-to-date, about SNI not being widely enough adopted and that we can see only 30% of all sites on the Internet today use HTTPS – for these reasons and others.

HTTP:// over TLS

In the httpbis work group in IETF the outcome of this debate is that there is a way being defined on how to do HTTP as specified with a HTTP:// URL – that we’ve learned is plain-text – over TLS, as part of the http2 work. Alt-Svc is the way. (The header can also be used to just load balance HTTP etc but I’ll ignore that for now)

Mozilla and Firefox is basically the only team that initially stands behind the idea of implementing this in a browser. HTTP:// done over TLS will not be seen nor considered any more secure than ordinary HTTP is and users will not be aware if that happens or not. Only true HTTPS connections will get the padlock, secure cookies and the other goodies true HTTPS sites are known and expected to get and show.

HTTP:// over TLS will just silently send everything through TLS (assuming that it can actually negotiate such a connection), thus making passive monitoring of the network less easy.

Ideally, future http2 capable servers will only require a config entry to be set TRUE to make it possible for clients to do OE on them.

HTTPS is the secure protocol

HTTP:// over TLS is not secure. If you want security and privacy, you should use HTTPS. This said, MITMing HTTPS transfers is still a widespread practice in certain network setups…

TCPcrypt

I find this initiative rather interesting. If implemented, it removes the need for all these application level protocols to do anything about opportunistic approaches and it could instead be handled transparently on TCP level! It still has a long way to go though before we will see anything like this fly in real life.

The future will tell

Is this just a fad that will get no adoption and go away or is it the beginning of something that will change how we do protocols in the future? Time will tell. Many harsh words are being exchanged over this topic in many a debate right now…

(I’m trying to stick to “HTTP:// over TLS” here when referring to doing HTTP OE/OK over TLS. This is partly because RFC2818 that describes how to do HTTPS uses the phrase “HTTP over TLS”…)

curling the metalink

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Back in 2005 Anthony Bryan started to work with his metalink idea, as can be read in this early 2006 article. Very simplified, Metalink is a way to tell a client how to download the same identical file from many places potentially in parallel. Anthony tells me he had the idea much earlier than so, going back to a bad experience trying to download a Fedora ISO from a download mirror…metalink_logo

Anthony’s and my discussions about metalink started in September 2006 and we’ve bounced countless of mails and ideas back and forth since then. Even more, we’ve become friends and we’ve worked together on several related subjects as well, including several Internet Drafts within the IETF.

We had a metalink discussion on the libcurl mailing list back in April 2008 about whether to have libcurl support it natively or not, but we (I) ended up with the conclusion that it wasn’t fit for libcurl. Basically because metalink is a layer on top of the application protocols that libcurl supports.

I wasn’t quite prepared at that time to accept the patches for the curl tool since I didn’t like all the XML stuff it would bring in and as I recall it I felt that I wasn’t prepared to deal with that extra work load at the time. I think I told the guys I wanted to wait and see and try it more at a later point.

In September that same year I blogged about Anthony’s work on getting an internet draft done for metalink. That would later in 2010 get released as RFC5854 and a year later RFC6249 came out with a way to provide all the info in HTTP headers instead of XML as the previous document was for. (Both RFCs contain acknowledgement to yours truly as contributor.)

Today

While I said metalink wasn’t really fit for libcurl, it was always fit for curl – the command line client that uses libcurl but is more of a transfer tool. During the spring 2012 Anthony and super-hacker Tatsuhiro Tsujikawa approached me and asked if perhaps we were ready for metalink in curl this time?

Yes!

Since the last time, metalink has developed as a standard and there’s now a libmetalink project to use and I felt it was a good time development wise as well. Tatsuhiro whipped up a refreshed patch in no time and soon we were polishing off the last little edges around the corners and the metalink patch set was merged into curl 7.27.0! Anthony’s and Tatsuhiro’s persistence and patience over the years are impressive. Thanks a lot my friends! That’s a little over five and a half years since the first approach until it got merged into the mainline sources. That’s nothing but pure dedication.

Usage

So, starting with curl 7.27.0 and assuming you built curl with the correct set of prereqs installed, this is how you use it:

curl --metalink [URL]

Where the URL is a URL that points to a metalink file, and then curl will download the file from one of the URLs mentioned. curl will at this point try them serially if there are multiple ones specified and not in parallel. Room for future improvements.

curl 7.27.0 will probably be released in the end of July 2012, but you can already get an early test version as a daily snapshot. We’ll appreciate all feedback you can give us!

11 years of me

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

On May 11th 2000 I posted by first blog entry that is still available online on advogato.org. No surprise but it was curl-related.

The full post was:

I was made aware of the fact that curl is not really dealing well with the directory part of an ftp URL.

I was gonna quote the appropriate text piece from RFC1738 (yes, it is obsoleted by RFC2396 although 1738 has more detailed info about particular protocols like ftp) to someone when I noticed that I had interpreted it wrong when I read it before.

The difference between getting a file relative the login directory or with absolute path. It turns out you have to get a path like ftp.site.com/%2etmp/ if you want have the absolute path “/tmp”. Oh well, I have it support my old way as well even if that isn’t following the RFC just to allow people using that way to be able to use the new one unmodifed…

… which I guess proves that even though lots of time has passed, I still occupy myself with the same kind of hobbies and side- projects…

The cookie RFC 6265

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

http://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc6265.txt is out!

Back when I was a HTTP rookie in the late 90s, I once expected that there was this fine RFC document somewhere describing how to do HTTP cookies. I was wrong. A lot of others have missed that document too, both before and after my initial search.

I was wrong in the sense that sure there were RFCs for cookies. There were even two of them (RFC2109 and RFC2965)! The only sad thing was however that both of them were totally pointless as in effect nobody (servers nor clients) implemented cookies like that so they documented idealistic protocols that didn’t exist in the real world. This sad state has made people fall into cookie problems all the way into modern days when they’ve implemented services according to those RFCs and then blame their browser for failing.

cookie

It turned out that the only document that existed that were being used, was the original Netscape cookie document. It can’t even be called a specification because it is so short and is so lacking in details that it leaves large holes open and forces implementors to guess about the missing pieces. A sweet irony in itself is the fact that even Netscape removed the document from their site so the only place to find this document is at archive.org or copies like the one I link to above at the curl.haxx.se site. (For some further and more detailed reading about the history of cookies and a bunch of the flaws in the protocol/design, I recommend Michal Zalewski’s excellent blog post HTTP cookies, or how not to design protocols.)

While HTTP was increasing in popularity as a protocol during the 00s and still is, and more and more stuff get done in browsers and everything and everyone are using cookies, the protocol was still not documented anywhere as it was actually used.

Somewhat modeled after the httpbis working group (which is working on updating and bugfixing the HTTP 1.1 spec), IETF setup a mailing list named httpstate in the early 2009 to start discussing what problems there are with cookies and all related matters. After lively discussions throughout the year, the working group with the same name as the mailinglist was founded at December 11th 2009.

One of the initial sparks to get the httpstate group going came from Bill Corry who said this about the start:

In late 2008, Jim Manico and I connected to create a specification for
HTTPOnly — we saw the security issues arising from how the browser vendors
were implementing HTTPOnly in varying ways[1] due to a lack of a specification
and formed an ad-hoc working group to tackle the issue[2].
When I approached the IETF about forming a charter for an official working
group, I was told that I was <quote> “wasting my time” because cookies itself
did not have a proper specification, so it didn’t make sense to work on a spec
for HTTPOnly.  Soon after, we pursued reopening the IETF httpstate Working
Group to tackle the entire cookie spec, not just HTTPOnly.  Eventually Adam
Barth would become editor and Jeff Hodges our chair.

In late 2008, Jim Manico and I connected to create a specification for HTTPOnly — we saw the security issues arising from how the browser vendors were implementing HTTPOnly in varying ways[1] due to a lack of a specification and formed an ad-hoc working group to tackle the issue[2].

When I approached the IETF about forming a charter for an official working group, I was told that I was <quote> “wasting my time” because cookies itself did not have a proper specification, so it didn’t make sense to work on a spec for HTTPOnly.  Soon after, we pursued reopening the IETF httpstate Working Group to tackle the entire cookie spec, not just HTTPOnly.  Eventually Adam Barth would become editor and Jeff Hodges our chair.

Since then Adam Barth has worked fiercely as author of the specification and lots of people have joined in and contributed their views, comments and experiences, and we have over time really nailed down how cookies work in the wild today. The current spec now actually describes how to send and receive cookies, the way it is done by existing browsers and clients. Of course, parts of this new spec say things I don’t think it should, like how it deals with the order of cookies in headers, but as everything in life we needed to compromise and I seemed to be rather lonely on my side of that “fence”.

I must stress that the work has only involved to document how things work today and not to invent or create anything new. We don’t fix any of the many known problems with cookies, but we describe how you write your protocol implementation if you want to interact fine with existing infrastructure.

The new spec explicitly obsoletes the older RFC2965, but doesn’t obsolete RFC2109. That was done already by RFC2965. (I updated this paragraph after my initial post.)

Oh, and yours truly is mentioned in the ending “acknowledgements” section. It’s actually the second RFC I get to be mentioned in, the first being RFC5854.

Future

I am convinced that I will get reason to get back to the cookie topic soon and describe what is being worked on for the future. Once the existing cookies have been documented, there’s a desire among people to design something that overcomes the problems with the existing protocol. Adam’s CAKE proposal being one of the attempts and ideas in the pipe.

Another parallel IETF effort is the http-auth mailing list in which lots of discussions around HTTP authentication is being held, and as they often today involve cookies there’s a lot of talk about them there as well. See for example Timothy D. Morgan’s document Weaning the Web off of Session Cookies.

I’ll certainly track the development. And possibly even participate in shaping how this will go. We’ll see.

(cookie image source)