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Encryption in 2016: Small victories add up

Fahmida Y. Rashid | Jan. 3, 2017
The move from SHA-1 to SHA-2, a Congressional victory over backdoors, and the rise of encrypted communications are leading us toward a more secure world

Technology development seems to gallop a little faster each year. But there's always one laggard: encryption. Why the deliberate pace? Because a single, small mistake can cut off communications or shut down businesses.

Yet there are times when you take stock—only to discover the encryption landscape seems to have transformed overnight. Now is that time. Although the changes have been incremental over several years, the net effect is dramatic.

Some of those changes began shortly after Edward Snowden's disclosures of the U.S. government’s extensive surveillance apparatus. Others are the natural result of cryptographic ideas reaching the marketplace, says Brent Waters, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the recipient of the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2015 Grace Murray Hopper Award.

“Many of the new tools and applications available are based on research innovations from 2005 and 2006,” Waters says. “We are just realizing what type of crypto functionality is possible.”

A step closer to an encrypted world

Encrypted web traffic is the first step toward a more secure online world where attackers cannot intercept private communications, financial transactions, or general online activity. Many sites, including Google and Facebook, have turned HTTPS on by default for all users. But for most domain owners, buying and deploying SSL/TLS certificates in order to secure traffic to their sites has been a costly and complicated endeavor.

Fortunately, Let’s Encrypt and its free SSL/TLS certificates have transformed the landscape, giving domain owners the tools to turn on HTTPS for their websites easily. A nonprofit certificate authority run by the Internet Security Research Group, Let’s Encrypt is backed by such internet heavyweights as Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Cisco, and Akamai.

How ubiquitous has HTTPS become? In October, Josh Aas, head of Let’s Encrypt and former Mozilla employee, posted a graph from Mozilla Telemetry showing that 50 percent of pages loaded that day used HTTPS, not HTTP. While the graph showed only Firefox users, the figure is still significant, because for the first time, the number of encrypted pages outnumbered unencrypted pages. NSS Labs expects the trend to continue, predicting that 75 percent of all Web traffic will be encrypted by 2019.

Free certificate offerings will further accelerate adoption. By next year, the number of publicly trusted free certificates issued will likely outnumber those that are paid for, says Kevin Bocek, vice president of security strategy and threat intelligence at key-management company Venafi. Many enterprises will also start using free services. With certificate cost no longer a consideration, certificate authorities will focus on better tools to securely manage certificates and protect their keys.

Speaking of certificate management, after years of warnings that SHA-1 certificates were weak and vulnerable to attack, enterprises are making steady progress toward upgrading to certificates that use SHA-2, the set of cryptographic hash functions succeeding the obsolete SHA-1 algorithm. Major browser makers, including Google, Mozilla, and Microsoft, have pledged to deprecate SHA-1 by the beginning of the year and to start blocking sites still using the older certificates. Facebook stopped serving SHA-1 connections and saw “no measurable impact,” wrote Facebook production engineer Wojciech Wojtyniak.

 

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