Tech Tip: Determine if SSL connections are truly secure

Here's how to determine if SSL connections are truly secure.

By Mike Mullins

When users browse to a Web site that begins with https, they expect that connection to be secure via Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), a protocol for transmitting secure documents via the Internet. The majority of Web sites use this protocol to obtain sensitive data (e.g., shopping cart data and credit card numbers from customers).

An https Web site may make most users feel relatively secure, but this alone doesn't guarantee secure transactions. To properly protect your organization's users—as well as corporate data that nonsecure transactions could leave open to exposure—make sure your users understand how to properly evaluate a Web site's security.

Making the SSL connection

When it comes to online forms, secure servers (from an https site) do not actually serve most of them. This means that the form data may not be going where users think.

If you view the source HTML code of a Web page that you're entering credit card data into, you should see something like the following:

<form method="POST" action="/order.cgi">
<form method="POST" action="">

If the form POSTs to an IP address, users should browse to another site. A Web site should send sensitive information only to a registered site.

Here are the four most common forms that users will encounter:

  • Form page with a form tag of <form action="/cgi-bin/login.cgi" method="get">: This is not secure at all, and it doesn't encrypt any of the information.
  • Form page with a form tag of <form action=" method="get">: This information isn't secure either. When the form sends the data, it initiates a new—not secure—HTTP session.
  • Form page with a form tag of <form action= method="get">: This securely transmits information to the form Web site.
  • Form page with a form tag of <form action=/cgi-bin/login.cgi method="get">: This also securely transmits information to the form Web site.

Making sure data remains secure

By securely transmitting data and using SSL to collect sensitive information, a Web site implies that it will keep that information secure. But what really happens behind the Web site?

For example, most small companies don't host their own Web sites; instead, they use a Web hosting service. But Web hosting services typically turn that Web form data into an e-mail, a process that more than likely doesn't encrypt the data. This means that anyone with access to the e-mail can easily access customers' sensitive information.

Advise users to keep this in mind when surfing the Web, and make sure your organization's Web site makes an effort to reassure its customers about data security.

Final thoughts

A properly implemented SSL Web site raises customers' expectation that you'll handle their information securely. Establishing an SSL Web site and then transmitting sensitive information collected at that site using a nonsecure method is a poor business practice, and it doesn't meet the standard of due diligence.

Employ SSL as the first step to securely collect, transmit, and store sensitive information. Ensure that your company's users know how to evaluate a Web site, and make sure to publicize your own efforts to customers so they know they're dealing with a secure Web site at all points.

Mike Mullins has served as a database administrator and assistant network administrator for the U.S. Secret Service. He is a Network Security Administrator for the Defense Information Systems Agency.

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