You should care about moving to HTTPS

Eric Mill's "We're Deprecating HTTP and it's going to be okay" is a must-read call-to-arms for everyone with a site on the Internet, explaining why the transition from unencrypted web traffic (HTTP) to encrypted (HTTPS) is actually fundamental to the future existence of the democratic web-as-we-know it.

For the 90% of my reading audience who are already saying "Bored now!" here's why it matters to you. Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented HTTP (the language of communication between web browser and web server) in CERN, a European haven of free thought, trust and international co-operation. The 1930s idea that "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail" was - surprisingly, given the history of cryptographic war in WW2 - fundamental to HTTP; messages might have transited systems owned by several different groups, but none of them would have thought to copy the messages passing through their system, let alone amend them.

This worked fine as long as no-one was interested in the communication of harmless nerds about their hobbies, much as the government-owned Royal Mail doesn't bother to copy the contents of postcards passing through their sorting offices because they only contain inane drivel about sun, sea and sand. However, once people realized that they could communicate freely about their occasionally subversive ideas across borders and continents, and financial institutions woke to the possibility of providing services without paying for expensive un-scalable fallible human cashiers, many governments and other less-legal entities wanted to read (and sometimes alter) Internet traffic.

Mills gives two great examples of where HTTPS prevented - and could have prevented further - nation-state abuse of Internet content:

- The nation of India tried and failed to ban all of GitHub. HTTPS meant they couldn't censor individual pages, and GitHub is too important to India's tech sector for them to ban the whole thing.
- The nation of China weaponized the browsers of users all over the world to attack GitHub for hosting anti-censorship materials (since like India, they can't block only individual pages) by rewriting Baidu's unencrypted JavaScript files in flight.
And closer to home, Cameron's plan to make all online communication subject to monitoring is so stupidly illiberal and expensively pointless that it deserves to be made impractical by general adoption of HTTPS. GCHQ and friends can tap all the Internet traffic they like: if it's protected by HTTPS, the traffic is just taking up disk space to no practical purpose. Brute-forcing, even with nation-state resources, is so expensive that it's reserved for really high-value targets. GCHQ would have to go after something fundamental like a Certificate Authority, which would leave big and obvious fingerprints, or compromise a particular user's machine directly, which doesn't scale.

As long as users are still relaxed about the absence of a padlock in their browser bar, HTTP will continue to provide a route for governments to snoop on their citizens' traffic. So let's give up on HTTP - it has had its day - and move to a world where strongly encrypted traffic is the default.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are subject to retrospective moderation. I will only reject spam, gratuitous abuse, and wilful stupidity.