It seems like a strange question for me to ask, given that in a number of my National Cyber Security Awareness Month posts to date, I have been advising you to use SSL or TLS to protect your communications. [Remember: TLS is the new name for SSL, but most people refer to it still as SSL, so I will do the same below]
But it’s a question I get asked on a fairly regular basis, largely as a result of news articles noting that there has been some new attack or other on SSL that breaks it in some way.
To be fair, I’m not sure that I would expect a journalist – even a technology journalist – to understand SSL in such a way that they could give a good idea as to how broken it may or may not be after each successful attack. That means that the only information they’re able to rely on is the statement given to them by the flaw’s discoverers. And who’s going to go to the press and say “we’ve found a slight theoretical flaw in SSL, probably not much, but thought you ought to know”?
The good news
First, the good news.
SSL is a protocol framework around cryptographic operations. That means that, rather than describing a particular set of cryptography that can’t be extended, it describes how to describe cryptography to be used, so that it can be extended when new algorithms come along.
So, when a new algorithm arrives, or a new way of using an existing algorithm (how can you tell the difference?), SSL can be updated to describe that.
So, in a sense, SSL will never be broken for long, and can always be extended to fix issues as they are detected.
Now for the bad news
Of course, SSL is really only a specification, and it has to be implemented before it can actually be used. That means that when SSL is updated to fix flaws, theoretical or practical, every implementation has to be changed to catch up to the new version.
And implementers don’t like to change their code once they have it working.
So when a new theoretical flaw comes along, the SSL designers update the way SSL works, increasing the version number when they have to.
The implementers, on the other hand, tend to wait until there is a practical flaw before updating to support the new version.
This means that whenever a practical break is found, you can bet it will be at least several weeks before you can see it fixed in the versions you actually use.
The presence of SSL assumes that your communications may be monitored, intercepted and altered. As such, don’t ever rely on a statement to the effect that “this breach of SSL is difficult to exploit, because you would have to get between the victim and his chosen site”. If that wasn’t possible, we wouldn’t need SSL in the first place.
Having said that, on a wired network, you are less likely to see interception of the type that SSL is designed to prevent. As such, even a broken SSL on wired networks is probably secure for the time it takes everyone to catch up to fixing their flaws.
On a wireless network, any flaws in SSL are significant – but as I’ve noted before, if you connect immediately to a trusted VPN, your wireless surfing is significantly safer, pretty much to the same level as you have on your home wired network.
The bottom line
In summary then:
SSL is frequently, and in some senses never, broken. There are frequently attacks, both theoretical and physical, on the SSL framework. Theoretical attacks are fixed in the specifications, often before they become practical. Practical attacks are fixed in implementations, generally by adopting the tack that had been suggested in the specifications while the attack was still theoretical. At each stage, the protocol that prevents the attack is still SSL (or these days, strictly, TLS), but it requires you keep your computers up to date with patches as they come out, and enable new versions of SSL as they are made available.
If you’re on a wired network, the chances of your being attacked are pretty slim. If you’re on a wireless network, your chances of being attacked are high, so make sure you are using SSL or an equivalent protocol, and for extra protection, use a VPN to connect a trusted wired network.