Strict Transport Security vs. HTTPS Resource Records: the showdown

HTTPS resource records (HTTPS RRs) are a new type of DNS record. The standard is still in progress and covers various intended use cases, mostly around delivering configuration information and parameters for how to access a service. In this post, I’m going to ignore all that and focus on one very simple use case: an HTTPS RR, on its own, can signal that a domain supports HTTPS, allowing the browser to upgrade connections to that domain from http:// to https://. In theory, browsers could look up HTTPS RRs alongside the A/AAAA lookup for a hostname, and if an HTTPS RR is present, then the browser would send the request over https:// and not http://. The idea is to prevent sslstrip-style attacks where a request to a site over http:// gets rewritten by the attacker, before the server even has a chance to redirect the http:// request to https://.

This aspect of HTTPS RRs looks similar to another technology: HTTP Strict Transport Security (STS). STS allows a hostname to tell a web browser that it only wants to be accessed over HTTPS. Any http:// URLs using that hostname will be automatically rewritten to https://, and if the https:// connection fails for any reason, there won’t be any fallback to http://. Servers have two options if they want to enable STS:

  • Servers can serve an HTTP header to enable and configure STS. When the browser sees this header, it will enforce STS for the hostname for a specified period of time.
  • Some browsers ship a baked-in list of hostnames that have configured STS, known as the HSTS preload list.

The advantage of the preload list is that hostnames on it will be protected even if the user has never visited them before. With the HTTP header, at least the first visit to the site is unprotected until the browser sees and processes the header. The disadvantage of the preload list is that it’s unscalable, and that it’s harder to undo. Once a hostname is on the preload list, if it stops supporting HTTPS, it won’t be accessible in most major browsers until all browsers ship an update.

With respect to HTTPS upgrading, HTTPS RRs and STS look so similar that you might wonder if HTTPS RRs obsolete STS. That turns out to be a subtle question. The two technologies have subtle differences in their threat models, but also in their deployment tradeoffs, such that neither is clearly better than the other.

Comparing threat models

First of all, for HTTPS RRs to have any security benefits at all, we must assume secure DNS traffic. Typically DNS lookups and responses are sent in the clear, in which case an attacker on the network could simply rewrite the response to the HTTPS query to indicate that the domain does not support HTTPS. So, as I talk about HTTPS RRs as a replacement for STS, I’m assuming the ubiquitous deployment of DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH), an in-progress protocol for sending, well, DNS traffic over HTTPS. When a client and resolver are using DoH, an attacker on the network between them can’t read or modify DNS queries and responses – at most, the attacker can block the traffic outright. The challenges of DoH deployment could make up a whole other blog post, but I talk a bit about the current status below. In the rest of this section, I’ll just wave a magic wand and assume that all DNS traffic is secure. With that assumption, I’ll walk through the attacks that work in one of HTTPS RRs or STS but not the other.

Malicious resolvers

Attack: a malicious or compromised DNS resolver colludes with an attacker on-path to the web server to prevent traffic to the web server from being upgraded to https://.

The most obvious and crucial difference between HTTPS RRs and STS is that, with HTTPS RRs, we are placing trust in at least the first-hop resolver to deliver the correct HTTPS RRs. A malicious resolver could claim that a domain has no HTTPS RR configured, causing the browser to access the site over http:// instead of https://.

What about resolvers further upstream? It depends on the extent to which DNSSEC is deployed for the domain in question and whether the client is using a resolver that validates DNSSEC. DNSSEC is a system for authenticating the data served via DNS, but it’s spottily deployed, 20 years after it came into existence. I can’t seem to find a canonical, up-to-date data source about how widely it’s deployed (please send me pointers if you know of any)1. Update Oct 26: Warren Kumari and Brian Dickson pointed me to some APNIC data which suggests that about 35% of clients are using a DNSSEC-validating resolver. In theory, if all the relevant zone administrators used DNSSEC to sign their records, and the client’s resolver validated those signatures, then only the client’s first-hop resolver could prevent the https:// upgrade. Any other malicious resolver along the path would not be able to forge an HTTPS RR (or lack thereof) that passes DNSSEC validation. I’m not sure how common this level of DNSSEC deployment is in practice these days, though it seems that a few years ago it was quite uncommon.

Update Oct 26: Brian Dickson also points out that clients can do DNSSEC validation themselves to remove trust from even the first-hop resolver, though I believe this is quite uncommon in practice.

Attacking the first visit

Attack: a network attacker intercepts the user’s first visit to a site and prevents it from being upgraded to https://.

I mentioned that the comparison between HTTPS RRs and STS is subtle, and one of the reasons is that preloaded STS vs HTTP-header STS have different security properties. So the comparison is really 3-way, not 2-way. In particular, when configured via HTTP header, STS does not protect a client’s first visit to a hostname. It might also not protect some subsequent visits, depending on how often the client visits the site and how quickly the header configures STS to expire. In contrast, both preloaded STS and HTTPS RRs apply to all of a client’s connections to the site.

Attacking the upgraded connection

Attack: a network attacker can’t prevent a connection from being upgraded to https://, but intercepts the https:// connection with a malicious invalid certificate.

The “strict” in Strict Transport Security doesn’t just refer to the fact that the browser strictly rewrites http:// URLs to https:// when STS is in use. It also refers to how the browser handles HTTPS certificate errors: namely, strictly. That is, when a user encounters an HTTPS certificate error on an STS site, the browser is forbidden from giving them the option to bypass the certificate error, as it usually would.

As far as I know, there’s no plan for HTTPS RRs to have the same effect; the presence of an HTTPS RR would signal that the domain should be contacted over https:// only, but doesn’t affect certificate error UI.

Update Oct 26: The current plan of record is for HTTPS RRs to have the same effect, though I’m currently arguing that they shouldn’t. (Thanks to Ben Schwartz for the correction.)

This is a topic for another blog post, but my opinion is that it was a mistake to make certificate errors non-bypassable for STS. Possibly STS was originally envisioned as a technology for highly sensitive sites, not as a standard part of HTTPS configuration as it is today. I could see a possible reasonable future in which HTTP-header STS goes away, and preloaded STS and HTTPS RRs stick around as two tiers of HTTPS upgrading. Preloaded STS, with its inherent scaling limitations, would be the tier for a limited number of highly sensitive sites, where even the first-hop resolver shouldn’t be trusted and even certificate errors shouldn’t be bypassable. HTTPS RR would be the mass-market STS, offering a lower level of security but less deployment risk.

Dropping traffic

Attack: a network attacker selectively drops client traffic to prevent connections from being upgraded to https://.

In Chrome, and probably in other major browsers too, the preloaded STS list fails open when the browser hasn’t been updated in a long time. If a domain owner wants to stop supporting HTTPS after adding their domain to the preload list, they can remove their domain from the preload list – but then they have to wait for that to propagate to all users they want to support, and some clients might never receive the update. With the fail-open expiration in place, there’s a finite amount of time that domain owners have to wait for preload list removals to propagate. After that amount of time, they know that any client which hasn’t yet received the update with the removal isn’t enforcing preloaded STS at all anymore.

This client behavior means that if an attacker blocks a client from receiving updates over a long period of time, that attacker can prevent the browser from upgrading preloaded domains to https://. However, we don’t usually talk about this attack much because if an attacker can block the browser from getting updates for a long period of time, the attacker can likely wait until a security vulnerability is disclosed and exploit that to do much more harm than preventing https:// upgrades.

In the HTTPS RR scenario, one might wonder what happens if an attacker blocks HTTPS RR queries. Even when all traffic between the client and DNS resolver is encrypted, the HTTPS RR query might have distinctive properties (such as response size) that allow attackers to block it selectively while allowing other queries to succeed. As I’ll discuss below, we don’t really know the security consequences of this attack yet. In an ideal world, when a client doesn’t receive a response to an HTTPS RR query, it would treat it as a network error and not allow the connection to proceed at all, such that this attack would be a denial-of-service rather than a downgrade to http://. But it’s not known yet if that ideal behavior is going to be deployable in light of real-world, non-attack failure conditions.

Deployment status

STS is mature and widely deployed, and often even recommended as a standard step when setting up HTTPS. It’s implemented in all major browsers. HTTPS RRs are, on the other hand, brand new and not fully specified or implemented yet. It’s not yet clear if HTTPS RRs will be deployable at all, so for now the STS vs HTTPS RRs question is an academic exercise: any HTTPS website owner looking to protect their users from sslstrip-style attacks today must use STS.

There are at least two major hurdles to deploying https:// upgrades via HTTPS RRs:

  • DoH deployment. Several major browsers now implement DoH, with varying approaches that have different tradeoffs. Still, while I don’t have exact numbers on hand, it’s safe to say that relatively few web users are using DoH today. DoH is not exactly a dependency for HTTPS RRs, but with respect to https:// upgrading, HTTPS RRs provide fairly little value if the DNS traffic isn’t secure2. With HTTPS RRs over plaintext, an attacker who wishes to prevent an https:// upgrade must be on the path between the client and the resolver in addition to the path between the client and the web server; thus HTTPS RRs over plaintext provide some security value compared to nothing at all, but very little compared to STS.
  • Reliability of a new record type. What happens if a domain hasn’t configured HTTPS RRs? The client should receive a NODATA response – and the client should, ideally, assume that if it receives no response, something funny is afoot and the client should refuse to connect to the site3. With this client behavior, as I mentioned above, even with DoH in use, an attacker can selectively block HTTPS RR responses but achieve at most a denial-of-service by doing so. However, it’s not yet known if this behavior is going to be deployable, because it might turn out that in real-world environments, HTTPS RRs get blocked for any number of non-attack reasons. If this is the case and can’t be fixed, then clients might have to allow plain http:// connections when they don’t receive HTTPS RRs responses, which significantly weakens the security properties of https:// upgrades. Chrome is currently planning an experiment to investigate how the DNS ecosystem handles a new record type. (Thanks to Eric Orth for a correction in this paragraph.)

Just to make things a little more complicated…

As you can see, comparing HTTPS RRs to STS is already quite complicated, with no one tool coming out cleanly ahead in my mind. But just to make things a little more complicated, there are more HTTPS upgrading proposals that one can compare to as well! One idea that comes up often is that browsers should use https:// as the default scheme instead of http://. In other words, if a person types just “example.com” in the browser address bar, with no specific scheme, today browsers will send the request to http://example.com. But with HTTPS adoption so widespread now, perhaps the browser should send the request to https://example.com instead, unless the person specifically types “http://”.

Would this change of default scheme obviate STS and/or HTTPS RRs? Or conversely, do STS and/or HTTPS RRs make it pointless to change the default scheme? The answer to both questions is “no”:

  • Changing the default scheme doesn’t obviate STS and/or HTTPS RRs for several reasons. One very simple reason is that STS and HTTPS RRs apply to all requests, not just typed navigation requests. Another more complex reason is that changing the default scheme is not likely to be deployable in the near-term without unacceptable breakage. Browsers will likely have to fall back to http:// if the default scheme https:// fails – meaning that an attacker can block the https:// request to cause the browser to fall back to http://. Thus STS and HTTPS RRs (over DoH) provide better security than simply reling on a default https:// scheme with a fallback to http://.
  • Changing the default scheme is still useful, however, because STS and HTTPS RRs are unlikely to be universally deployed anytime soon. Defaulted typed navigations to https:// will protect sites that support https:// but haven’t configured any https:// redirect or upgrading – though this protection is against passive attackers only as long as the browser will fall back to http://. Even in a world where all HTTPS sites use STS or HTTPS RRs, using https:// as a default scheme provides a small amount of defense in depth against the various weaknesses I’ve discussed above.

Clearly, there’s a lot going on in this space. My prediction is that we’ll end up with a patchwork of different HTTPS upgrading mechanisms that each play a slightly different role. I also predict that we’ll see some slight weakening of security in the name of deployability and scalability; for example, perhaps fewer sites will be preloaded in favor of slightly less secure but more scalable HTTPS upgrading mechanisms like HTTPS RRs.

Thanks to Kaustubha Govind and Dan McArdle for explaining many of the things in this post to me!

  1. This dashboard gives a per-TLD breakdown but doesn’t have stats on what percentage of clients are using resolvers that validate DNSSEC. Thanks to Jacob Hoffman-Andrews for the pointer! 

  2. There are use cases other than HTTPS upgrading where HTTPS RRs provide more notable value even if retrieved over plaintext – in particular, use cases that are aimed at foiling passive attackers. 

  3. Update Oct 26: Eric Orth points out that some types of incorrect responses can be worked around while maintaining security, while others can’t. For example, if a client gets an incorrect NXDOMAIN response instead of a NODATA, that’s okay; it can be safely treated as a NODATA. But an incorrect SERVFAIL response, on the other hand, must be treated as an attack, because it could signal DNSSEC validation failure. 

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