The HSTS is a web server command. The HSTS was officially announced in July 2016 by Google. It tells the users and web browsers about handling its connection by a retort header which is sent at the start and then back to the browser.
The HSTS adjusts the Strict-Transport-Security policy field structure. It compels connections over HTTPS encryption, ignoring any script’s call to load any other resource in that domain over HTTP. The HSTS is like a single arrow in a bundles sheaf of security settings for your web server.
The HSTS is also vulnerable to hackers. The SSL stripping is a typical man-in-the-middle attack. By this attack, the hacker can easily get user confidential information and data — for instance; passwords, bank details, and so on. Even the hackers can also use any data entered by the user and later can use it for their use.
However, HSTS also do protect from hackers. The Chrome preloads all HSTS-enabled website lists and ensures that every user with HSTS-enabled website in an updated version of Chrome remains safe from hackers and attackers.
If the above information seems incomplete or if you want to know more than don’t worry. This article will provide you with information about HSTS, its meaning, and purpose. Also, later in this article, we will discuss how does it offer protection from the hackers too?
So, let’s find out more.
What does HSTS mean?
The HSTS is a web header. It forces browsers to make secure connections within a website. After getting downloaded by the browser, it compels the connections for a particular period.
It is essential to use HSTS because regardless of installing SSL there is a weakness which can be exploited. Notably, the MITM attacks where a hacker can easily redirect a user to vulnerable pages without their prior knowledge and steal their data too. However, by adding an HSTS header, this problem can be addressed.
Purpose of HSTS:
When you enable the HSTS directive so, it will prevent the SSL protocol attacks, hijacking cookies, and two other vulnerabilities in SSL-enabled websites. To make a website safer and secure, HSTS will enable the sites to load faster. It will be done by eliminating a step during the loading process.
The servers are not directly connected. Thus it is essential that they pass requests and responses via a series of network routers. All these routers are present between the servers and have full access to a request sent through HTTP connections. The data transfer as uncoded text, so the routers act as MITM (man in the middle) and read or influence the data in transit.
As a result, users might receive wrong or manipulated information. It is also possible that they can lead to adverse servers used by hackers to steal private and confidential information. Like for instance; bank account details, passwords, and credit card details. Potentially, such sort of intervention goes unidentified because a weak HTTP response looks the same as a real and authentic response.
Now, HSTS efficiently deals with this problem and takes better care of the user’s safety and security. Since the HSTS policy was made, it compels all the responses to get pass through HTTPS connections rather than plain text HTTP. By doing so, it is sure that the entire channels become encrypted before sending the data. Also, it makes complicated and impossible for the hijackers to either read or manipulate the data in transit.
Example of HSTS:
Let’s understand HSTS better by considering an example. Suppose you want to connect to an online banking platform via public Wi-Fi. However, the access point is none other than a hacker’s system.
The hacker intervenes the real HTTP requests and will redirect you to a clone of the bank’s website. In this way, the hacker will know all your personal information like password, bank account details, and credit card details.
But with HSTS policy this is not a problem now. With HSTS policy as long as the user accesses bank’s site by using an HTTPS connection, the browser will itself automatically use the HTTPS, avoiding such MITM attacks.
What does SSL Stripping means?
Even though the HTTPS is a high-security policy than HTTP but it can get hacked. SSL stripping is the most common MITM attack for websites which uses redirections to send users from an HTTP to the HTTPS version of their sites.
Generally, the permanent 301 and temporary 302 redirect works like in the following manner:
1) A user types google.com in the Browser’s address bar.
2) The browser then tries to load http://google.com as a default.
3) Google.com is set up with permanent 301 redirects to https://google.com
4) The browser looks the redirect and loads https://google.com
The SSL stripping allows the hacker to utilize the time between 3rd and 4th step to block the redirect request and prevent the browser to load the secure HTTPS version of the site. Since you are accessing an unsafe and unencrypted version of the site so, hackers can easily hack any of your personal and confidential information and data.
As the hackers are very talented so, they can also send you a copy of the site you are trying to visit and seize all kind of data you enter.
How HSTS protects from hackers?
When HSTS is enabled so, it compels the browser to load the secure version of a site. It ignores and neglects any redirection or calls to open an HTTP connection. It shuts off the redirection vulnerability which exists with a 301 and 302 redirect.
However, there is a negative side of HSTS too. The user’s browser has to review and check the HSTS header at least once before taking advantage of visits in the future. It means that they will have to go through HTTP > HTTPS process once. They leave it vulnerable for the first time when they visit the HSTS active site.
To address this issue and protect users from hackers, Chrome preloads a list of websites which have HSTS active and enabled. All the users can also submit the HSTS enabled sites to the list by themselves if they fulfilled the criteria.
All the sites added in this list will be coded hard for future versions of Chrome updates. In this, the hackers become incapable of attacking the users. It assures that everyone who visits your HSTS active sites in updated Chrome versions stay secured. Hence, the HSTS protects the users from hackers too.
Undoubtedly, the HSTS is simple but most potent web security policy. It efficiently secures the HTTPS sites against MITM attacks. Moreover, it triggers the complaint browser to implement the security practices by automatically converting all HTTP links into HTTPS links.
The switching from HTTP to HTTPS connections provider the best protection against MITM attacks. Although in a vulnerable and compromised network, the hacker will be incapable of using the insecure HTTP connection.
To sum up all, the HSTS assures that all communication and data is well encrypted. Also, all the delivered and received requests and responses are sent to and received from real, valid, and authentic servers.