HTTPS adoption has grown to the point where it can, and should, be considered the standard for Web security. The problem is that not all organizations have jumped on board — including the United States Department of Defense (DOD), which runs several sites that lack HTTPS encryption.
In a strongly worded letter to DOD CIO Dana Deasy, US Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., urges "immediate action" on the adoption of cybersecurity best practices for all publicly accessible DOD Web services.
A handful of DOD sites, including the Army, Air Force, and National Security Agency homepages, have HTTPS by default and use certificates trusted by major browsers, Wyden writes. Several others — namely, the websites for the Navy, Marines, and the CIO office itself — either don't encrypt connections or only verify their authenticity with a DOD Root Certificate Authority.
"Many mainstream web browsers do not consider these DoD certificates trustworthy and issue scary security warnings that users are forced to navigate before accessing the website's information," writes Wyden in his letter. The poor user experience affects civilians and service members, all of whom must face security warnings when visiting DOD webpages.
This isn't the first time the government has been mandated to improve its Web security. In 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a memo instructing federal agencies to enable HTTPS encryption and enforce it with HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) by the end of 2016. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security issued a directive emphasizing the OMB's requirements and requiring civilians to practice better security hygiene.
"Any public-facing website is a gateway to exposing personal information, getting any sorts of data that can be detrimental against the Department of Defense," says Mike Chung, head of government solutions at Bugcrowd, which last year ran the Hack the Pentagon event to improve security for public-facing government websites.
The security implications if Wyden's requests aren't fulfilled could affect all government agencies, which hold personal data that can be exposed or extracted, he continues. "To me, it's all that sensitive data they hold in their IT infrastructure that has the potential to be hacked into," Chung says of the repercussions. "That could be the absolute worst-case scenario."
HackerOne advisor Lisa Wiswell agrees. "HTTPS has been industry best practice for way too long to not have every single public facing website owned or operated by the US Federal or State Governments converted," she says. "Plain text is not acceptable - no matter if you're inputting personallu identifiable information or just browsing a website."
There's little doubt the security community will be watching the response from Deasy, who was appointed to the role of DOD CIO in April and most recently held the position of CIO at JPMorgan Chase. Addressing these issues is "absolutely a must" for him, Chung notes.
Wyden says "the DoD cannot continue these insecure practices" because the consequences of staying stagnant are growing greater. Starting in July, Google plans to acknowledge HTTPS as the expected standard by removing the "secure" label from HTTPS websites and marking all HTTP sites as "not secure," alerting users whenever they visit unencrypted pages.
Google's warnings will weaken public trust in the DOD's ability to defend against cybercrime, according to Wyden. The DOD sets a poor example by teaching people to dismiss critical security warnings as irrelevant. Normalizing these alerts drives the risk of cyberattacks and foreign-government hacking: if the DOD doesn't prioritize security, civilians have less incentive to do the same.
The letter closes with three key security recommendations. Wyden urges Deasy to adopt the guidelines described in memos from the OMB and DHS, obtain and deploy certificates trusted by major Web browsers for all publicly accessible services, and evaluate the use of shorter-lived, machine-generated certificates.
That said, Deasy will need to do more than adopt HTTPS to strengthen the government's security posture. "My hope is that this new CIO will take it to the next level and really have the opportunity to do an assessment across all DOD public-facing websites, as well as mobile apps," Chung says. This may mean, for example, launching more crowdsourced initiatives to mitigate the lack of skilled security pros in the government.
It's a difficult time for government cybersecurity, which finds itself in a tough position as it loses a cybersecurity coordinator amid growing threats. Data shows federal agencies have the least-secure applications across industry sectors, with just 4% of federal apps scanned weekly.
"I don't know if the DOD is well-prepared to fight the cyber war," says Chung. "There's a lack of resources, lack of preparedness, lack of understanding of where these different attack vectors can come from."