Tag Archives: TLS

Lesser HTTPS for non-browsers

An HTTPS client needs to do a whole lot of checks to make sure that the remote host is fine to communicate with to maintain the proper high security levels.

In this blog post, I will explain why and how the entire HTTPS ecosystem relies on the browsers to be good and strict and thanks to that, the rest of the HTTPS clients can get away with being much more lenient. And in fact that is good, because the browsers don’t help the rest of the ecosystem very much to do good verification at that same level.

Let me me illustrate with some examples.

CA certs

The server’s certificate must have been signed by a trusted CA (Certificate Authority). A client then needs the certificates from all the CAs that are trusted. Who’s a trusted CA and how would a client get their certs to use for verification?

You can say that you trust the same set of CAs that your operating system vendor trusts (which I’ve always thought is a bit of a stretch but hey, I can very well understand the convenience in this). If you want to do this as an HTTPS client you need to use native APIs in Windows or macOS, or you need to figure out where the cert bundle is stored if you’re using Linux.

If you’re not using the native libraries on windows and macOS or if you can’t find the bundle in your Linux distribution, or you’re in one of a large amount of other setups where you can’t use someone else’s bundle, then you need to gather this list by yourself.

How on earth would you gather a list of hundreds of CA certs that are used for the popular web sites on the net of today? Stand on someone else’s shoulders and use what they’ve done? Yeps, and conveniently enough Mozilla has such a bundle that is licensed to allow others to use it…

Mozilla doesn’t offer the set of CA certs in a format that anyone else can use really, which is the primary reason why we offer Mozilla’s cert bundle converted to PEM format on the curl web site. The other parties that collect CA certs at scale (Microsoft for Windows, Apple for macOS, etc) do even less.

Before you ask, Google doesn’t maintain their own list for Chrome. They piggyback the CA store provided on the operating system it runs on. (Update: Google maintains its own list for Android/Chrome OS.)

Further constraints

But the browsers, including Firefox, Chrome, Edge and Safari all add additional constraints beyond that CA cert store, on what server certificates they consider to be fine and okay. They blacklist specific fingerprints, they set a last allowed date for certain CA providers to offer certificates for servers and more.

These additional constraints, or additional rules if you want, are never exported nor exposed to the world in ways that are easy for anyone to mimic (in other ways than that everyone of course can implement the same code logic in their ends). They’re done in code and they’re really hard for anyone not a browser to implement and keep up with.

This makes every non-browser HTTPS client susceptible to okaying certificates that have already been deemed not OK by security experts at the browser vendors. And in comparison, not many HTTPS clients can compare or stack up the amount of client-side TLS and security expertise that the browser developers can.

HSTS preload

HTTP Strict Transfer Security is a way for sites to tell clients that they are to be accessed over HTTPS only for a specified time into the future, and plain HTTP should then not be used for the duration of this rule. This setup removes the Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) risk on subsequent accesses for sites that may still get linked to via HTTP:// URLs or by users entering the web site names directly into the address bars and so on.

The browsers have a “HSTS preload list” which is a list of sites that people have submitted and they are HSTS sites that basically never time out and always will be accessed over HTTPS only. Forever. No risk for MITM even in the first access to these sites.

There are no such HSTS preload lists being provided for non-browser HTTPS clients so there’s no easy way for non-browsers to avoid the first access MITM even for these class of forever-on-HTTPS sites.

Update: The Chromium HSTS preload list is available in a JSON format.


I’m sure you’ve heard about the deprecation of SHA-1 as a certificate hashing algorithm and how the browsers won’t accept server certificates using this starting at some cut off date.

I’m not aware of any non-browser HTTPS client that makes this check. For services, API providers and others don’t serve “normal browsers” they can all continue to play SHA-1 certificates well into 2017 without tears or pain. Another ecosystem detail we rely on the browsers to fix for us since most of these providers want to work with browsers as well…

This isn’t really something that is magic or would be terribly hard for non-browsers to do, its just that it will make some users suddenly get errors for their otherwise working setups and that takes a firm attitude from the software provider that is hard to maintain. And you’d have to introduce your own cut-off date that you’d have to fight with your users about! ;-)

TLS is hard to get right

TLS and HTTPS are full of tricky areas and dusty corners that are hard to get right. The more we can share tricks and rules the better it is for everyone.

I think the browser vendors could do much better to help the rest of the ecosystem. By making their meta data available to us in sensible formats mostly. For the good of the Internet.


Yes I work for Mozilla which makes Firefox. A vendor and a browser that I write about above. I’ve been communicating internally about some of these issues already, but I’m otherwise not involved in those parts of Firefox.

curl and TLS 1.3

Draft 18 of the TLS version 1.3 spec was publiSSL padlockshed at the end of October 2016.

Already now, both Firefox and Chrome have test versions out with TLS 1.3 enabled. Firefox 52 will have it by default, and while Chrome will ship it, I couldn’t figure out exactly when we can expect it to be there by default.

Over the last few days we’ve merged TLS 1.3 support to curl, primarily in this commit by Kamil Dudka. Both the command line tool and libcurl will negotiate TLS 1.3 in the next version (7.52.0 – planned release date at the end of December 2016) if built with a TLS library that supports it and told to do it by the user.

The two current TLS libraries that will speak TLS 1.3 when built with curl right now is NSS and BoringSSL. The plan is to gradually adjust curl over time as the other libraries start to support 1.3 as well. As always we will appreciate your help in making this happen!

Right now, there’s also the minor flux in that servers and clients may end up running implementations of different draft versions of the TLS spec which contributes to a layer of extra fun!

Three TLS current 1.3 test servers to play with: https://enabled.tls13.com/ , https://www.allizom.org/ and https://tls13.crypto.mozilla.org/. I doubt any of these will give you any guarantees of functionality.

TLS 1.3 offers a few new features that allow clients such as curl to do subsequent TLS connections much faster, with only 1 or even 0 RTTs, but curl has no code for any of those features yet.

curl and h2 on mac

$ curl ‐‐http2 https://daniel.haxx.se/
curl: (1) Unsupported protocol

curl on mac

curcurl-symboll has been shipped by default on Mac OS X since many years – I actually couldn’t even manage to figure out exactly how many. It is built and bundled with the operating system by Apple itself and on Apple’s own terms and even though I’m the main curl developer I’ve never discussed this with them or even been asked or told about their plans. I’m not complaining, our license allows this and I’m nothing but happy with them shipping curl to millions of Mac users.

Leaving OpenSSL

osxOriginally, curl on Mac was built against OpenSSL for the TLS and SSL support, but over time our friends at Apple have switched more and more of their software over to use their own TLS and crypto library Secure Transport instead of OpenSSL. A while ago Apple started bundling curl built to use the native mac TLS library instead of OpenSSL.

As you may know, when you build curl you can select from eleven different TLS libraries and one of them of course is Secure Transport. Support for this TLS back-end in curl was written by curl hackers, but it apparently got to a quality level good enough for Apple to decide to build curl with this back-end and ship it like that.

The Secure Transport back-end is rather capable and generally doesn’t cause many reasons for concern. There’s however one notable little glitch that people keep asking me about…

curl doesn’t support HTTP/2 on mac!

There are two obvious reasons why not, and they are:

1. No ALPN with Secure Transport

Secure Transport doesn’t offer any public API to enable HTTP/2 with ALPN when speaking HTTPS. Sure, we know Apple supports HTTP/2 already in several other aspects in their ecosystem and we can check their open code so we know there’s support for HTTP/2 and ALPN. There’s just no official APIs for us to use to switch it on!

So, if you insist on building curl to use Secure Transport instead of one of the many alternatives that actually support ALPN just fine, then you can’t negotiate HTTP/2 over TLS!

2. No nghttp2 with Mac OS

Even without ALPN support, you could actually still negotiate HTTP/2 over plain text TCP connections if you have a server that supports it. But even then curl depends on the awesome nghttp2 library to provide the frame level protocol encoding/decoding and more. If Apple would decide to enable HTTP/2 support for curl on Mac OS, they need to build it against nghttp2. I really think they should.

Homebrew and friends to the rescue!

Correct. You can still install your own separate curl binary (and libcurl library) from other sources, like for example Homebrew or Macports and they do offer versions built against other TLS back-ends and nghttp2 and then of course HTTP/2 works just fine with curl on mac.

Did I file a bug with Apple?

No, but I know for certain that there has been a bug report filed by someone else. Unfortunately it isn’t public so I can’t link nor browse it.

A third day of deep HTTP inspection

The workshop roomThis fine morning started off with some news: Patrick is now our brand new official co-chair of the IETF HTTPbis working group!

Subodh then sat down and took us off on a presentation that really triggered a long and lively discussion. “Retry safety extensions” was his name of it but it involved everything from what browsers and HTTP clients do for retrying with no response and went on to also include replaying problems for 0-RTT protocols such as TLS 1.3.

Julian did a short presentation on http headers and his draft for JSON in new headers and we quickly fell down a deep hole of discussions around various formats with ups and downs on them all. The general feeling seems to be that JSON will not be a good idea for headers in spite of a couple of good characteristics, partly because of its handling of duplicate field entries and how it handles or doesn’t handle numerical precision (ie you can send “100” as a monstrously large floating point number).

Mike did a presentation he called “H2 Regrets” in which he covered his work on a draft for support of client certs which was basically forbidden due to h2’s ban of TLS renegotiation, he brought up the idea of extended settings and discussed the lack of special handling dates in HTTP headers (why we send 29 bytes instead of 4). Shows there are improvements to be had in the future too!

Martin talked to us about Blind caching and how the concept of this works. Put very simply: it is a way to make it possible to offer cached content for clients using HTTPS, by storing the data in a 3rd host and pointing out that data to the client. There was a lengthy discussion around this and I think one of the outstanding questions is if this feature is really giving as much value to motivate the rather high cost in complexity…

The list of remaining Lightning Talks had grown to 10 talks and we fired them all off at a five minutes per topic pace. I brought up my intention and hope that we’ll do a QUIC library soon to experiment with. I personally particularly enjoyed EKR’s TLS 1.3 status summary. I heard appreciation from others and I agree with this that the idea to feature lightning talks was really good.

With this, the HTTP Workshop 2016 was officially ended. There will be a survey sent out about this edition and what people want to do for the next/future ones, and there will be some sort of  report posted about this event from the organizers, summarizing things.

Attendees numbers

http workshopThe companies with most attendees present here were: Mozilla 5, Google 4, Facebook, Akamai and Apple 3.

The attendees were from the following regions of the world: North America 19, Europe 15, Asia/pacific 6.

38 participants were male and 2 female.

23 of us were also at the 2015 workshop, 17 were newcomers.

15 people did lightning talks.

I believe 40 is about as many as you can put in a single room and still have discussions. Going larger will make it harder to make yourself heard as easily and would probably force us to have to switch to smaller groups more and thus not get this sort of great dynamic flow. I’m not saying that we can’t do this smaller or larger, just that it would have to make the event different.

Some final words

I had an awesome few days and I loved all of it. It was a pleasure organizing this and I’m happy that Stockholm showed its best face weather wise during these days. I was also happy to hear that so many people enjoyed their time here in Sweden. The hotel and its facilities, including food and coffee etc worked out smoothly I think with no complaints at all.

Hope to see again on the next HTTP Workshop!

The TLS trinity dance

In the curl project we currently support eleven different TLS libraries. That is 8 libraries and the OpenSSL “trinity” consisting of BoringSSL, libressl and of course OpenSSL itself.

You could easily be mislead into believing that supporting three libraries that all have a common base would be reallytrinity easy since they have the same API. But no, it isn’t. Sure, they have the same foundation and they all three have more in common that they differ but still, they all diverge in their own little ways and from my stand-point libressl seems to be the one that causes us the least friction going forward.

Let me also stress that I’m but a user of these projects, I don’t participate in their work and I don’t have any insights into their internal doings or greater goals.


Easy-peacy, very similar to OpenSSL. The biggest obstacle might be that the version numbering is different so an old program that might be adjusted to different OpenSSL features based on version numbers (like curl was) needs some adjusting. There’s a convenient LIBRESSL_VERSION_NUMBER define to detect libressl with.


I regularly build curl against OpenSSL from their git master to get an early head-start when they change things and break backwards compatibility. They’ve increased that behavior since Heartbleed and while I generally agree with their ambitions on making more structs opaque instead of exposing all internals, it also hurts us over and over again when they remove things we’ve been using for years. What’s “funny” is that in almost all cases, their response is “well use this way instead” and it has turned out that there’s an equally old API that is still there that we can use instead. It also tells something about their documentation situation when that is such a common pattern. It’s never been possible to grasp this from just reading docs.


BoringSSL has made great inroads in the market and is used on Android now and more. They don’t do releases(!) and have no version numbers so the only thing we can do is to build from git and there’s no install target in the makefile. There’s no docs for it, they remove APIs from OpenSSL (curl can’t support NTLM nor OCSP stapling when built with it), they’ve changed several data types in the API making it really hard to build curl without warnings. Funnily, they also introduced non-namespaced typedefs prefixed with X509_* that collide with other common headers.

How it can play out in real life

A while ago we noticed BoringSSL had removed the DES_set_odd_parity function which we use in curl. We changed the configure script to look for it and changed the code to survive without it. The lack of that function then also signaled that it wasn’t OpenSSL, it was BoringSSL

BoringSSL moved around things that caused our configure script to no longer detect it as “OpenSSL compliant” because CRYPTO_lock could no longer be found by configure. We changed it to instead search for HMAC_Init and we were fine again.

Time passed and BoringSSL brought back DES_set_odd_parity, so our configure script no longer saw it as BoringSSL (the Android fixed this problem in their git but never sent as the fix). We changed the configure script accordingly to properly use OPENSSL_IS_BORINGSSL instead to detect BoringSSL which was the correct thing anyway and now as a bonus it can thus detect and work with both new and old BoringSSL versions.

A short time after, I again try to build curl against the OpenSSL master branch only to realize they’ve deprecated HMAC_Init that we just recently switched to for detection (since the configure script needs to check for a particular named function within a library to really know that it has detected and can use said library). Sigh, we switched “detect function” again to HMAC_Update. Hopefully this exists in all three and will stick around for a while…

Right now I think we can detect and use all three. It is only a matter of time until one of them will ruin that and we will adapt again.

HTTPS and HTTP/2 plans for my sites

I produce a fair amount of open source code. I make that code available online. curl is probably the most popular package.

People ask me how they can trust that they are actually downloading what I put up there. People ask me when my source code can be retrieved over HTTPS. Signatures and hashes don’t add a lot against attacks when they all also are fetched over HTTP…


SSL padlockI really and truly want to offer HTTPS (only) for all my sites.  I and my friends run a whole busload of sites on the same physical machine and IP address (www.haxx.se, daniel.haxx.se, curl.haxx.se, c-ares.haxx.se, cool.haxx.se, libssh2.org and many more) so I would like a solution that works for all of them.

I can do this by buying certs, either a lot of individual ones or a few wildcard ones and then all servers would be covered. But the cost and the inconvenience of needing a lot of different things to make everything work has put me off. Especially since I’ve learned that there is a better solution in the works!

Let’s Encrypt will not only solve the problem for us from a cost perspective, but they also promise to solve some of the quirks on the technical side as well. They say they will ship certificates by September 2015 and that has made me wait for that option rather than rolling up my sleeves to solve the problem with my own sweat and money. Of course there’s a risk that they are delayed, but I’m not running against a hard deadline myself here.


Related, I’ve been much involved in the HTTP/2 development and I host my “http2 explained” document on my still non-HTTPS site. I get a lot of questions (and some mocking) about why my HTTP/2 documentation isn’t itself available over HTTP/2. I would really like to offer it over HTTP/2.

Since all the browsers only do HTTP/2 over HTTPS, a prerequisite here is that I get HTTPS up and running first. See above.

Once HTTPS is in place, I want to get HTTP/2 going as well. I still run good old Apache here so it might be done using mod_h2 or perhaps with a fronting nghttp2 proxy. We’ll see.


SSL padlockI’ve written the http2 explained document and I’ve done several talks about HTTP/2. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about TLS in association with HTTP/2 due to this, and I want to address some of them here.

TLS is not mandatory

In the HTTP/2 specification that has been approved and that is about to become an official RFC any day now, there is no language that mandates the use of TLS for securing the protocol. On the contrary, the spec clearly explains how to use it both in clear text (over plain TCP) as well as over TLS. TLS is not mandatory for HTTP/2.

TLS mandatory in effect

While the spec doesn’t force anyone to implement HTTP/2 over TLS but allows you to do it over clear text TCP, representatives from both the Firefox and the Chrome development teams have expressed their intents to only implement HTTP/2 over TLS. This means HTTPS:// URLs are the only ones that will enable HTTP/2 for these browsers. Internet Explorer people have expressed that they intend to also support the new protocol without TLS, but when they shipped their first test version as part of the Windows 10 tech preview, that browser also only supported HTTP/2 over TLS. As of this writing, there has been no browser released to the public that speaks clear text HTTP/2. Most existing servers only speak HTTP/2 over TLS.

The difference between what the spec allows and what browsers will provide is the key here, and browsers and all other user-agents are all allowed and expected to each select their own chosen path forward.

If you’re implementing and deploying a server for HTTP/2, you pretty much have to do it for HTTPS to get users. And your clear text implementation will not be as tested…

A valid remark would be that browsers are not the only HTTP/2 user-agents and there are several such non-browser implementations that implement the non-TLS version of the protocol, but I still believe that the browsers’ impact on this will be notable.

Stricter TLS

When opting to speak HTTP/2 over TLS, the spec mandates stricter TLS requirements than what most clients ever have enforced for normal HTTP 1.1 over TLS.

It says TLS 1.2 or later is a MUST. It forbids compression and renegotiation. It specifies fairly detailed “worst acceptable” key sizes and cipher suites. HTTP/2 will simply use safer TLS.

Another detail here is that HTTP/2 over TLS requires the use of ALPN which is a relatively new TLS extension, RFC 7301, which helps us negotiate the new HTTP version without losing valuable time or network packet round-trips.

TLS-only encourages more HTTPS

Since browsers only speak HTTP/2 over TLS (so far at least), sites that want HTTP/2 enabled must do it over HTTPS to get users. It provides a gentle pressure on sites to offer proper HTTPS. It pushes more people over to end-to-end TLS encrypted connections.

This (more HTTPS) is generally considered a good thing by me and us who are concerned about users and users’ right to privacy and right to avoid mass surveillance.

Why not mandatory TLS?

The fact that it didn’t get in the spec as mandatory was because quite simply there was never a consensus that it was a good idea for the protocol. A large enough part of the working group’s participants spoke up against the notion of mandatory TLS for HTTP/2. TLS was not mandatory before so the starting point was without mandatory TLS and we didn’t manage to get to another stand-point.

When I mention this in discussions with people the immediate follow-up question is…

No really, why not mandatory TLS?

The motivations why anyone would be against TLS for HTTP/2 are plentiful. Let me address the ones I hear most commonly, in an order that I think shows the importance of the arguments from those who argued them.

1. A desire to inspect HTTP traffic

looking-glassThere is a claimed “need” to inspect or intercept HTTP traffic for various reasons. Prisons, schools, anti-virus, IPR-protection, local law requirements, whatever are mentioned. The absolute requirement to cache things in a proxy is also often bundled with this, saying that you can never build a decent network on an airplane or with a satellite link etc without caching that has to be done with intercepts.

Of course, MITMing proxies that terminate SSL traffic are not even rare these days and HTTP/2 can’t do much about limiting the use of such mechanisms.

2. Think of the little ones

small-big-dogSmall devices cannot handle the extra TLS burden“. Either because of the extra CPU load that comes with TLS or because of the cert management in a billion printers/fridges/routers etc. Certificates also expire regularly and need to be updated in the field.

Of course there will be a least acceptable system performance required to do TLS decently and there will always be systems that fall below that threshold.

3. Certificates are too expensive

The price of certificates for servers are historically often brought up as an argument against TLS even it isn’t really HTTP/2 related and I don’t think it was ever an argument that was particularly strong against TLS within HTTP/2. Several CAs now offer zero-cost or very close to zero-cost certificates these days and with the upcoming efforts like letsencrypt.com, chances are it’ll become even better in the not so distant future.

pile-of-moneyRecently someone even claimed that HTTPS limits the freedom of users since you need to give personal information away (he said) in order to get a certificate for your server. This was not a price he was willing to pay apparently. This is however simply not true for the simplest kinds of certificates. For Domain Validated (DV) certificates you usually only have to prove that you “control” the domain in question in some way. Usually by being able to receive email to a specific receiver within the domain.

4. The CA system is broken

TLS of today requires a PKI system where there are trusted certificate authorities that sign certificates and this leads to a situation where all modern browsers trust several hundred CAs to do this right. I don’t think a lot of people are happy with this and believe this is the ultimate security solution. There’s a portion of the Internet that advocates for DANE (DNSSEC) to address parts of the problem, while others work on gradual band-aids like Certificate Transparency and OCSP stapling to make it suck less.

please trust me

My personal belief is that rejecting TLS on the grounds that it isn’t good enough or not perfect is a weak argument. TLS and HTTPS are the best way we currently have to secure web sites. I wouldn’t mind seeing it improved in all sorts of ways but I don’t believe running protocols clear text until we have designed and deployed the next generation secure protocol is a good idea – and I think it will take a long time (if ever) until we see a TLS replacement.

Who were against mandatory TLS?

Yeah, lots of people ask me this, but I will refrain from naming specific people or companies here since I have no plans on getting into debates with them about details and subtleties in the way I portrait their arguments. You can find them yourself if you just want to and you can most certainly make educated guesses without even doing so.

What about opportunistic security?

A text about TLS in HTTP/2 can’t be complete without mentioning this part. A lot of work in the IETF these days are going on around introducing and making sure opportunistic security is used for protocols. It was also included in the HTTP/2 draft for a while but was moved out from the core spec in the name of simplification and because it could be done anyway without being part of the spec. Also, far from everyone believes opportunistic security is a good idea. The opponents tend to say that it will hinder the adoption of “real” HTTPS for sites. I don’t believe that, but I respect that opinion because it is a guess as to how users will act just as well as my guess is they won’t act like that!

Opportunistic security for HTTP is now being pursued outside of the HTTP/2 spec and allows clients to upgrade plain TCP connections to instead do “unauthenticated TLS” connections. And yes, it should always be emphasized: with opportunistic security, there should never be a “padlock” symbol or anything that would suggest that the connection is “secure”.

Firefox supports opportunistic security for HTTP and it will be enabled by default from Firefox 37.


Пост доступен на сайте softdroid.net: Восстановление: TLS в HTTP/2. (Russian)

TLS in HTTP/2 (Kazakh)

curl is no POODLE

Once again the internet flooded over with reports and alerts about a vulnerability using a funny name: POODLE. If you have even the slightest interest in this sort of stuff you’ve already grown tired and bored about everything that’s been written about this so why on earth do I have to pile on and add to the pain?

This is my way of explaining how POODLE affects or doesn’t affect curl, libcurl and the huge amount of existing applications using libcurl.

Is my application using HTTPS with libcurl or curl vulnerable to POODLE?

No. POODLE really is a browser-attack.


The POODLE attack is a combination of several separate pieces that when combined allow attackers to exploit it. The individual pieces are not enough stand-alone.

SSLv3 is getting a lot of heat now since POODLE must be able to downgrade a connection to SSLv3 from TLS to work. Downgrade in a fairly crude way – in libcurl, only libcurl built to use NSS as its TLS backend supports this way of downgrading the protocol level.

Then, if an attacker manages to downgrade to SSLv3 (both the client and server must thus allow this) and get to use the sensitive block cipher of that protocol, it must maintain a connection to the server and then retry many similar requests to the server in order to try to work out details of the request – to figure out secrets it shouldn’t be able to. This would typically be made using javascript in a browser and really only HTTPS allows this so no other SSL-using protocol can be exploited like this.

For the typical curl user or a libcurl user, there’s A) no javascript and B) the application already knows the request it is doing and normally doesn’t inject random stuff from 3rd party sources that could be allowed to steal secrets. There’s really no room for any outsider here to steal secrets or cookies or whatever.

How will curl change

There’s no immediate need to do anything as curl and libcurl are not vulnerable to POODLE.

Still, SSLv3 is long overdue and is not really a modern protocol (TLS 1.0, the successor, had its RFC published 1999) so in order to really avoid the risk that it will be possible exploit this protocol one way or another now or later using curl/libcurl, we will disable SSLv3 by default in the next curl release. For all TLS backends.

Why? Just to be extra super cautious and because this attack helped us remember that SSLv3 is old and should be let down to die.

If possible, explicitly requesting SSLv3 should still be possible so that users can still work with their legacy systems in dire need of upgrade but placed in corners of the world that every sensible human has since long forgotten or just ignored.

In-depth explanations of POODLE

I especially like the ones provided by PolarSSL and GnuTLS, possibly due to their clear “distance” from browsers.

Less plain-text is better. Right?

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.


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…


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”…)


A whole range of significant Swedish network organizations (ISOC, SNUS, DFRI and SUNET) organized a full-day event today, managed by the great mr Olle E Johansson. The event, called “MeraKrypto” (MoreCrypto would be the exact translation), was a day with introductions to TLS and a lot of talks around TLS and other encryption and security related topics.

I was there and held a talk on the topic of “curl and TLS” and I basically talked some basics around what curl and libcurl are, how we do TLS, some common problems and hwo verifying the server cert is a common usage mistake and then I continued on to quickly mention how http2 and TLS relate..See my slides below, but please be aware that as usual you may not grasp the whole thing only by the (English) slides. The event was fully booked so there was around one hundred peeps in the audience and there were a lot of interested minds that asked good questions proving they really understood the topics.

The discussion almost got heated during the talk about how companies do MITMing of SSL sessions and this guy from Bluecoat pretty much single-handedly argued for the need for this and how “it fills a useful purpose”.

It was a great afternoon!

The event was streamed live and recorded on video. I’ll post a link as soon as it gets available to me.