Web Components

The usefulness of the WWW is due not just to browsers, but also to web components that enable services for end users through their browser interfaces. These components use a wide range of protocols and services to deliver the desired content to end users. From a security perspective, they offer users an easy-to-use, secure method of conducting data transfers over the Internet. Many protocols have been developed to deliver this content, although for most users, the browser handles the details. From a systems point of view, many security concerns have arisen, but they can be grouped into three main tasks:

  • Securing a server that delivers content to users over the web

  • Securing the transport of information between users and servers over the web

  • Securing the user's computer from attack over a web connection


When two people communicate, several things must happen for the communication to be effective: They must use a language that both parties understand, and they must correctly use the language-that is, structure and syntax-to express their thoughts. The mode of communication is a separate entity entirely, for the previous statements are important in both spoken and written forms of communication. The same requirements are present with respect to computer communications and they are addressed through protocols. Protocols refer to agreed upon sets of rules that allow different vendors to produce hardware and software that can interoperate with hardware and software developed by other vendors. Because of the worldwide nature of the Internet, protocols are very important and form the basis by which all the separate parts can work together. The specific instantiation of protocols is done through hardware and software components. The majority of this chapter will concentrate on protocols related to the Internet as instantiated by software components.

Encryption (SSL and TLS)

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is a general-purpose protocol developed by Netscape for managing the encryption of information being transmitted over the Internet. It began as a competitive feature to drive sales of Netscape's web server product, which could then send information securely to end users. This early vision of securing the transmission channel between the web server and the browser became an Internet standard.

Today, SSL is almost ubiquitous with respect to e-commerce-all browsers support it as do web servers, and virtually all sensitive financial traffic from e-commerce web sites uses this method to protect information in transit between web servers and browsers. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) embraced SSL in 1996 through a series of RFCs and named the group Transport Layer Security (TLS). Starting with SSL 3.0, in 1999 the IETF issued RFC 2246, "TLS Protocol Version 1.0," followed by RFC 2712, which added Kerberos authentication, and then RFCs 2817 and 2818, which extended TLS to HTTP version 1.1 (HTTP/1.1). Although SSL has been through several versions,

TLS begins with an equivalency to SSL 3.0, so today SSL and TLS are essentially the same although not interchangeable. SSL/TLS is a series of functions that exist in the OSI (Open System Interconnection) model between the application layer and the transport and network layers. The goal of TCP is to send an unauthenticated error-free stream of information between two computers. SSL/TLS adds message integrity and authentication functionality to TCP through the use of cryptographic methods. Because cryptographic methods are an ever-evolving field, and because both parties must agree on an implementation method, SSL/TLS has embraced an open, extensible, and adaptable method to allow flexibility and strength.

When two programs initiate an SSL/TLS connection, one of their first tasks is to compare available protocols and agree on an appropriate common cryptographic protocol for use in this particular communication. As SSL/TLS can use separate algorithms and methods for encryption, authentication, and data integrity, each of these is negotiated and determined depending upon need at the beginning of a communication.

How SSL/TLS Works

SSL/TLS uses a wide range of cryptographic protocols. To use these protocols effectively between a client and a server, an agreement must be reached on which protocol to use via the SSL handshake process. The process begins with a client request for a secure connection and a server's response. The questions asked and answered are which protocol and which cryptographic algorithm will be used. For the client and server to communicate, both sides must agree on a commonly held protocol (SSL v1, v2, v3, or TLS v1). Commonly available cryptographic algorithms include Diffie-Hellman and RSA. The next step is to exchange certificates and keys as necessary to enable authentication. Authentication was a one-way process for SSL v1 and v2 with only the server providing authentication. In SSL v3/TLS, mutual authentication of both client and server is possible.

The certificate exchange is via X.509 certificates, and public key cryptography is used to establish authentication. Once authentication is established, the channel is secured with symmetric key cryptographic methods and hashes, typically RC4 or 3DES for symmetric key and MD5 or SHA-1 for the hash functions.

The Web (HTTP and HTTPS)

HTTP is used for the transfer of hyperlinked data over the Internet, from web servers to browsers. When a user types a URL such as http://www.example.com into a browser, the http:// portion indicates that the desired method of data transfer is HTTP. Although it was initially created just for HTML pages, today many protocols deliver content over this connection protocol. HTTP traffic takes place over TCP port 80 by default, and this port is typically left open on firewalls because of the extensive use of HTTP.

One of the primary drivers behind the development of SSL/TLS was the desire to hide the complexities of cryptography from end users. When using an SSL/TLS-enabled browser, this can be done simply by requesting a secure connection from a web server instead of nonsecure connection. With respect to HTTP connections, this is as simple as using https:// in place of http://.

When a browser is SSL/TLS-aware, the entry of an SSL/TLS-based protocol will cause the browser to perform the necessary negotiations with the web server to establish the required level of security. Once these negotiations have been completed and the session is secured by a session key, a closed padlock icon is displayed in the lower right of the screen to indicate that the session is secure. If the protocol is https:, your connection is secure; if it is http:, then the connection is carried by plaintext for anyone to see. As the tiny padlock placed in the lower-right corner of the screen could have been missed, Microsoft moved it to an obvious position next to the URL in Internet Explorer 7.

Another new security feature that begins with Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 3 is the use of high assurance SSL, a combination of an extended validation SSL certificate and a high security browser. If a high security browser, Internet Explorer 7 or Firefox 3 and beyond, establish a connection with a vendor that has registered with a certificate authority for an extended validation SSL certificate, then the URL box will be colored green and the box next to it will display the registered entity and additional validation information when clicked. These improvements were in response to phishing sites and online fraud, and although they require additional costs and registration on the part of the vendors, this is a modest up-front cost to help reduce fraud and provide confidence to customers.

One important note on SSL certificate-based security is the concept of single- versus dual-sided authentication. The vast majority of SSL connections are single-sided, meaning that only the identity of the server side is vouched for via a certificate. The client is typically not identified by certificate, mainly because of the number of clients and corresponding PKI issues. A single-sided SSL secured conversation can be attacked using a man-in-the-middle attack by capturing all the traffic and relaying responses. Dual-sided SSL would prevent this attack mechanism, yet the management of every client needing to obtain and maintain a certificate makes this practically infeasible with the current PKI available to most end users.

The objective of enabling cryptographic methods in this fashion is to make it easy for end users to use these protocols. SSL/TLS is designed to be protocol agnostic. Although designed to run on top of TCP/IP, it can operate on top of other lower level protocols, such as X.25. SSL/TLS requires a reliable lower level protocol, so it is not designed and cannot properly function on top of a non-reliable protocol such as the User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Even with this limitation, SSL/TLS has been used to secure many common TCP/IP-based services

Directory Services (DAP and LDAP)

A directory is a data storage mechanism similar to a database, but it has several distinct differences designed to provide efficient data retrieval services compared to standard database mechanisms. A directory is designed and optimized for reading data, offering very fast search and retrieval operations. The types of information stored in a directory tend to be descriptive attribute data. A directory offers a static view of data that can be changed without a complex update transaction. The data is hierarchically described in a treelike structure, and a network interface for reading is typical. Common uses of directories include e-mail address lists, domain server data, and resource maps of network resources.

To enable interoperability, the X.500 standard was created as a standard for directory services. The primary method for accessing an X.500 directory is through the Directory Access Protocol (DAP), a heavyweight protocol that is difficult to implement completely, especially on PCs and more constrained platforms. This led to the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), which contains the most commonly used functionality. LDAP can interface with X.500 services, and, most importantly, LDAP can be used over TCP with significantly less computing resources than a full X.500 implementation.

LDAP offers all of the functionality most directories need and is easier and more economical to implement, hence LDAP has become the Internet standard for directory services. LDAP standards are governed by two separate entities depending upon use: The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) governs the X.500 standard, and LDAP is governed for Internet use by the IETF. Many RFCs apply to LDAP functionality, but some of the most important are RFCs 2251 through 2256 and RFCs 2829 and 2830.


LDAP over TCP is a plaintext protocol, meaning data is passed in the clear and is susceptible to eavesdropping. Encryption can be used to remedy this problem, and the application of SSL/TLS-based service will protect directory queries and replies from eavesdroppers. SSL/TLS provides several important functions to LDAP services. It can establish the identity of a data source through the use of certificates, and it can also provide for the integrity and confidentiality of the data being presented from an LDAP source. As LDAP and SSL/TLS are two separate independent protocols, interoperability is more a function of correct setup than anything else. To achieve LDAP over SSL/TLS, the typical setup is to establish an SSL/TLS connection and then open an LDAP connection over the protected channel. To do this requires that both the client and the server be enabled for SSL/TLS. In the case of the client, most browsers are already enabled. In the case of an LDAP server, this specific function must be enabled by a system administrator. As this setup initially is complicated, it's definitely a task for a competent system administrator.

Once an LDAP server is set up to function over an SSL/TLS connection, it operates as it always has. The LDAP server responds to specific queries with the data returned from a node in the search. The SSL/TLS functionality operates to secure the channel of communication, and it is transparent to the data flow from the user's perspective. From the outside, SSL/TLS prevents observation of the data request and response, ensuring confidentiality.

File Transfer (FTP and SFTP)

One of the original intended uses of the Internet was to transfer files from one machine to another in a simple, secure, and reliable fashion, which was needed by scientific researchers. Today, file transfers represent downloads of music content, reports, and other data sets from other computer systems to a PC-based client. Until 1995, the majority of Internet traffic was file transfers. With all of this need, a protocol was necessary so that two computers could agree on how to send and receive data. As such, FTP is one of the older protocols.


FTP is an application-level protocol that operates over a wide range of lower level protocols. FTP is embedded in most operating systems and provides a method of transferring files from a sender to a receiver. Most FTP implementations are designed to operate both ways, sending and receiving, and can enable remote file operations over a TCP/IP connection. FTP clients are used to initiate transactions and FTP servers are used to respond to transaction requests. The actual request can be either to upload (send data from client to server) or download (send data from server to client).

Clients for FTP on a PC can range from an application program to the command line ftp program in Windows/DOS to most browsers. To open an FTP data store in a browser, you can enter ftp://url in the browser's address field to indicate that you want to see the data associated with the URL via an FTP session-the browser handles the details. File transfers via FTP can be either binary or in text mode, but in either case, they are in plaintext across the network.

Blind FTP (Anonymous FTP)

To access resources on a computer, an account must be used to allow the operating system level authorization function to work. In the case of an FTP server, you may not wish to control who gets the information, so a standard account called anonymous exists.

This allows unlimited public access to the files and is commonly used when you want to have unlimited distribution. On a server, access permissions can be established to allow only downloading or only uploading or both, depending on the system's function. As FTP can be used to allow anyone access to upload files to a server, it is considered a security risk and is commonly implemented on specialized servers isolated from other critical functions. As FTP servers can present a security risk, they are typically not permitted on workstations and are disabled on servers without need for this functionality.


FTP operates in a plaintext mode, so an eavesdropper can observe the data being passed. If confidential transfer is required, Secure FTP (SFTP) utilizes both the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol and FTP to accomplish this task. SFTP is an application program that encodes both the commands and the data being passed and requires SFTP to be on both the client and the server. SFTP is not interoperable with standard FTP-the encrypted commands cannot be read by the standard FTP server program. To establish SFTP data transfers, the server must be enabled with the SFTP program, and then clients can access the server provided they have the correct credentials. One of the first SFTP operations is the same as that of FTP: an identification function that uses a username and an authorization function that uses a password. There is no anonymous SFTP account by definition, so access is established and controlled from the server using standard access control lists (ACLs), IDs, and passwords.


Modern encryption technology can provide significant levels of privacy, up to military grade secrecy. The use of protocols such as SSL/TLS provide a convenient method for end users to use cryptography without having to understand how it works. This can result in complacency the impression that once SSL/TLS is enabled, the user is safe, but this is not necessarily the case. If a Trojan program is recording keystrokes and sending the information to another unauthorized user, for example, SSL/TLS cannot prevent the security breach. If the user is connecting to an untrustworthy site, the mere fact that the connection is secure does not prevent the other site from running a scam. Using SSL/TLS and other encryption methods will not guard against your credit card information being "lost" by a company with which you do business, as in the egghead.com credit card hack of 2000. In December 2000, egghead.com's credit card database was hacked, and as many as 3.7 million credit card numbers were exposed. Other similar stories include 55,000 credit card records being compromised by creditcards.com in 2000 and more than 300,000 records being compromised by the CD Universe hack in 1999.

The key to understanding what is protected and where it is protected requires an understanding of what these protocols can and cannot do. The SSL/TLS suite can protect data in transit, but not on either end in storage. It can authenticate users and servers, provided that the certificate mechanisms are established and used by both parties.

Properly set up and used, SSL/TLS can provide a very secure method of authentication, followed by confidentiality in data transfers and data integrity checking. But again, all of this occurs during transit, and the protection ends once the data is stored.

Code-Based Vulnerabilities

The ability to connect many machines together to transfer data is what makes the Internet so functional for so many users. Browsers enable much of this functionality, and as the types of data have grown on the Internet, browser functionality has grown as well. But not all functions can be anticipated or included in each browser release, so the idea of extending browser functions through plug-ins became a standard. Browsers can perform many types of data transfer, and in some cases, additional helper programs, or plug-ins, can increase functionality for specific types of data transfers. In other cases, separate application programs may be called by a browser to handle the data being transferred. Common examples of these plug-ins and programs include Shockwave plug-ins, RealOne player (both plug-in and standalone application), Windows Media Player, and Adobe Acrobat (both plug-in and standalone). The richness that enables the desired functionality of the Internet has also spawned some additional types of interfaces in the form of ActiveX components and Java applets.