One of the most important tools in web security is Transport Layer Security (TLS). It not only protects sensitive information during transit, but also verifies that the content has not been modified. The user can be confident that content delivered via HTTPS is exactly what the website sent. The user can exchange sensitive information with the website, secure in the knowledge that it won’t be altered or intercepted. However, this increase in security comes with an increased overhead cost. It is tempting to be concerned only about encryption and ignore the necessity to validate on both ends, but any resources that are called on a secure page should be similarly protected, not just the ones containing secret content.
The controversy begins when the discussion turns to passive content — images, videos, etc. It may be difficult to imagine how an attacker could inflict anything worse than mild annoyance by replacing such content. There are two attack scenarios which are commonly cited.
An unsophisticated attacker could, perhaps, damage the reputation of a company by including offensive or illegal content. However, the attack would only be effective while the attacker maintains a privileged position on the network. If the user moves to a different Wi-Fi network, the attacker is out of the loop. It would be easy to demonstrate to the press or law enforcement that the company is not responsible, so the impact would be negligible.
If a particular browser’s image parsing process is vulnerable, a highly sophisticated attacker can deliver a specially crafted, malformed file using a passive mixed content vulnerability. In this case, the delivery method is incidental, and the vulnerability lies with the client, rather than the server. This attack requires advanced intelligence about the specific target’s browser, and an un-patched or unreported vulnerability in that specific browser, so the threat is negligible.
However, there is an attack scenario that requires little technical sophistication, yet may result in a complete account takeover. First, assume the attacker has established a privileged position in the network by spoofing a public Wi-Fi access point. The attacker can now return any response to non-encrypted requests coming over the air. From this position, the attacker can return a 302 “Found” temporary redirect to a non-encrypted request for the passive content on the target site. The location header for this request is a resource under their control, configured to respond with a 401 “Unauthorized” response containing a WWW-Authenticate header with a value of Basic realm=”Please confirm your credentials.” The user’s browser will halt loading the page and display an authentication prompt. Some percentage of users will inevitably enter their credentials, which will be submitted directly to the attacker. Even worse, this attack can be automated and generalized to such a degree that an attacker could use commodity hardware to set up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot in a public place and harvest passwords from any number of sites.
Protecting against this attack is relatively simple. For users, be very suspicious of any unexpected login prompts, especially if it doesn’t look like part of the website. For developers, source in all resources using HTTPS on every secure page.