There’s always another digital acronym on the horizon, and while some never stick, it’s worth getting to know Google’s latest effort: the HTTPS Strict Transport Security (HSTS) preload list. The search giant will start enforcing HTTPS connections across 45 top-level domains (TLDs), including .google, .how and .soy. What does this mean for web security?
Does HSTS Mean the Death of HTTP?
HTTP is risky. According to Threatpost, attackers can snoop on traffic to execute connection downgrade attacks such as Logjam or leverage other techniques to hijack cookies. HTTPS is functionally superior, and the standard is finally making progress.
As noted by Wired, half the web now relies on encrypted page loads and HTTPS. Google gets some of the credit here: Back in 2010, the company defaulted to HTTPS for Gmail and began developing encrypted search features. In 2014, Google gave ranking boosts to sites using HTTPS, and last year it became a platinum sponsor of free secure sockets layer (SSL) certificate service Let’s Encrypt.
Chrome now also displays insecure site warnings. In response, many major enterprises have made the shift to HTTPS.
Simply put, HTTP served its purpose but can’t compete with HTTPS. After years of asking nicely, Google is taking the next step and forcing secure connections.
Even if a user enters an HTTP address, the HSTS list automatically converts the page to HTTPS before loading. The preload list is supported across Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Edge and Opera. On the Google Security Blog, Ben McIlwain, a software engineer for Google Registry, wrote that “the use of TLD-level HSTS allows such namespaces to be secure by default.”
In addition to .google, the search giant owns live domains such as .how and .soy, which it sells to companies or individuals looking to set up their own websites. Others, such as .ads, .boo, .here and .meme, haven’t gone live yet. But since the search giant is a TLD registrar and has a vested interest in top-level security, expect to see these up and running in short order.
A Line in the Sand
Ultimately, the HSTS list represents a paradox: Shouldn’t users be allowed to connect insecurely if they prefer? Is a user’s browsing experience his or her own?
Yes and no. With no measurable benefit to using HTTP over HTTPS, and given the risk of large-scale compromise if infected browsers then infect others, there’s a reasonable case here for Google’s line in the sand. Just as Microsoft eventually shutters service for outdated and insecure versions of Windows, Google is doing the same for HTTP.
If Google is doing it, others will likely follow suit. The HSTS preload list is merely a precursor to the new state of web security.