This morning I was scanning TechCrunch while still in bed, and I saw a news item about a hot new Silicon Valley startup, Adgregate Markets, that has either solved a really vexing problem in online security or has made the situation a lot worse. Given what we’ve been working on recently at Redfin, I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.
Backing up: for the last few days, we’ve been revamping our registration and login process at Redfin to make it easier for users, and I must admit that what we’ve found has depressed me to no end. We want to put an inline form that lets users log in without ever leaving the page, but it turns out that it’s very difficult to do this reasonably securely. Much more depressing has been the realization that many sites that I use daily, sites I respect, have abysmal security around login and registration. Our awesome summer intern Aditya said after a long discussion of the myriad ways to hack the login process: “Man, I’m never banking online again.” He then confessed that he’d never banked offline (and didn’t know how), which made me feel impossibly old.
The topic that most scared Aditya was “Man In The Middle” attacks and the impossibility of providing a reasonably secure experience from an HTTP page. The problem is this: suppose someone evil has set up a wifi router in your favorite coffee house and that he has control over that router. Because all of your traffic is going through that wifi router, Mr. Evil can not only listen to every packet that is transmitted between you and the Internet, he can also modify any packet. Now, on an HTTPS page, that’s not a problem because (a) the packets that the router can see are encrypted and (b) the browser will alert the user with a big scary warning if the any of the packets have been modified along the way. HTTP pages, on the other hand, will act completely normally if Mr. Evil mucks around with them.
What this means is that any form on an HTTP page is inherently unsafe, even if it posts to an HTTPS page.
Let me repeat that: ANY form on an HTTP page is inherently unsafe.
Why? Because as a user, you have no idea if the form at http://awesomesite.com came from awesomesite.com or from Mr. Evil’s nefarious lair. And if the form did come from Mr. Evil, chances are that it will send your credit card number back to Mr. Evil (and your username and your password and your SSN and your mother’s maiden name…). Worse, it could send the credit card info to Mr. Evil before continuing and sending it along to awesomesite.com. Neither you nor awesomesite.com would be any the wiser.
Many web developers mistakenly believe that an HTTP form (on http://awesomesite.com) that posts to an SSL URL (https://awesomesite.com) is safe, because the communication channel for the post is secure between client and server. But Mr. Evil can change http://awesomesite.com freely, so he can make the form post to anywhere he wants. This is why we tell users again and again rule #1 of web security: Never enter confidential information, especially credit card numbers, unless you see the SSL lock in your browser.
Which brings us back to Adgregate Markets. Adgregate is a company that launched at the TechCrunch 50 yesterday, and they have a product that creates interactive banner ads that allow the user to complete a shopping checkout process completely inside an ad, without leaving the host page at all. They say that this both increases conversion rates, which is a Good Thing for advertisers, and increases page stickiness, which is a Good Thing for publishers. The panel at TC50 reacted positively to Adgregate, and the fact that their business model takes a cut of every sale that happens through their ads is certainly attractive.
There’s a problem here, though, and it’s packaged neatly in Adgregate’s marketing copy: “provide(s) secure transactions on both secure and non-secure pages.” As I said above, I think this simply isn’t possible. If the host page is HTTP, then Mr. Evil can swap out Adgregate’s Flash ad for an ad that looks exactly like it but sends all of the info to Mr. Evil’s server, not to Adgregate. Users will be none the wiser until a laser death ray shows up on their MasterCard statement.
On the other hand, maybe Adgregate has figured out how to securely conduct a conversation on an HTTP page. Many, many smart people have tried for over a decade to solve this problem and failed, but it’s possible Adgregate cracked that nut. If they have, though, it would arguably be a better business model to patent and sell the intellectual property. There are a lot of people who would pay good money for it.
As I write this post, Adgregate’s running third in a prediction market for winning best in show. My amateur prediction is that they won’t win, but that they will probably come out of TC50 with a good boost in publicity. My fear, though, is that they will start to find success with their “secure” forms on HTTP pages, and that they will succeed at convincing users that those forms are safe. (To be fair, Adgregate is far from the only company that is attempting to convince users of the safety of HTTP forms, a fact we discovered in the course of our research on inline registration. To my horror, I found out that even my bank encourages users to enter their password into a non-SSL page.)
If users become inured to entering confidential info on to HTTP pages, then everyone in the consumer web space loses. Because when those Adgregate ads get hacked (and if they become at all successful, they will be hacked), people will lose some degree of faith in the consumer web. And after Mr. Evil has gotten you once, it’s hard to believe that he won’t get you again.
(Dr. Evil pose photo used under Creative Commons from flickr user caitlinator.)