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The SSL Implementation Equation

Many SSL servers aren't as secure as you'd think, according to new data from Qualys' SSL Labs
Only about one-fifth of SSL websites actually redirect to SSL for authentication, according to new data released at Black Hat USA last week.

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That's one deployment failure among several in today's SSL-secured websites. "In the security community, we talk about advanced attacks [in research], but today it's not advanced attacks that are making sites vulnerable," says Ivan Ristic, director of engineering for Qualys. Organizations are improperly implementing SSL on their servers, he says.

Ristic has been working on a project for Qualys' community project SSL Labs, which has been studying major SSL sites during the past year. Among the latest findings: Of the nearly 250,000 SSL sites, only 51,00 redirect to SSL, and the other 80 percent may or may not redirect to SSL for authentication, according to the SSL Labs data.

"So 80 percent of all [SSL sites are] vulnerable to a Firesheep attack or similar tool," Ristic says.

And when you visit an SSL site, you assume it protects your credentials. Well, not so much: Ristic says 70 percent of the servers handled the login in plain text, and 55 percent submitted passwords in plain text. "We looked for every authentication page in our crawler and tracked the implementation," he says. "They may have a well-configured SSL server, but they made a conscious choice not to use SSL in authentication.

"In most cases, developers are not aware of these issues ... Maybe they make mistakes. And there is a level of anxiety about performance," he says.

Ristic also looked at HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) -- which provides a level of security against cookie-forcing attacks -- among the SSL sites he surveyed. Only 80 sites used it.

As for Extended Validation SSL (EV SSL), only nine sites had these certificates.

Ristic says, overall, he has not seen much improvement worldwide in SSL server deployments during the past two years. "The only thing that will cause the sites to improve is to attack them or show them how easily it is to be attacked," he says, noting that such a scenario was what helped Google shore up its defenses.

"I don't want to name any of the SSL websites" that aren't securely implemented, he says. "Everyone is guilty of this. There are so few sites that do it well."

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