New Browser Security Features have Tracking Side-Effects

If browser developers spent less time adding tracking and spying features and more time ensuring that their products are free of bugs, they’d probably have happier customers.

Most modern browsers are not simple tools anymore to display HTML websites properly in the browser. They are complex programs that support a wide variety of technologies including several designed to improve the security and privacy of users. While that is a good thing usually, it may lead to issues as well if these new technologies can be abused.

A recent blog post by Ars Technica’s Dan Goodin indicates that this is the case for two new technologies that some web browsers support.

HTTP Strict Transport (HSTS) and HTTP Public Key Pinning (HPKP) are designed to improve the security of connections made to websites supporting these measures.

HTTP Strict Transport does so by instructing browsers to only establish connections if HTTPS connections can be established. If that is not the case, the connection is refused.

It is similar on first glance to what the popular browser extension HTTPS Everywhere offers which can be used to enforce HTTPS connections as well. The difference however is that it is the web server in the case of HSTS which is enforcing the rule.

The side-effect of HSTS is that it can be used to track users on the Internet. We have talked about this already in our guide to prevent HSTS tracking in the Firefox web browser.

The Firefox tracking method abused the fact that Mozilla stores information about HSTS supporting sites in a plain text document. The new tracking method however users another system that makes it compatible with all browsers supporting it.

The basic idea behind the method is to embed non-existing images from known HSTS sites on a target web page and to measure the time it takes to register an error (since the image does not exist). A quickly resolving error indicates that the site has been visited in the past.

sniffly hsts

You can check the method out for yourself by visiting this demo site. It checks the HSTS cache against a number of popular websites only.

If you want to know more about this, check out the Advanced Browser Fingerprinting talk by Yan Zhu. She discovered the vulnerability and programmed the proof of concept attack site. It is an excellent talk that anyone can follow who has a basic understanding of computers and the Internet.

The HTTP Public Key Pinning attack works in a different way and only in Chrome currently. While it is limited to Chrome, other browsers will implement certificate-pinning reporting, which is required for the attack.

Basically, it allows websites to specify HTTPS credentials that a browser should accept in the future when connections are made to the site.

The method can be abused by pinning unique text to each visitor which can then be read on subsequent visits.

Defenses against these new privacy-invading attack forms

One option that you have to defend yourself is to clear site data completely in your browser of choice. The main issue that many users may have with it is that it will remove user-set preferences and data that the user requires as well.

Chrome users may also load chrome://net-internals/#hsts to check individual domains this way, but it is far from comfortable. Unfortunately, there is no option in Chrome currently to list all HSTS sites to delete select ones more comfortable.

Firefox users on the other hand can follow the guide linked in the opening paragraphs of this article for ways to delete entries from the HSTS file.

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