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The SSL Safety Myth

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The past week the security universe has been pounded by a whirlwind of bad press and bad actors. It all started with the news of Lenovo pre-installing adware (better yet, crapware) on new machines that would allow ads from a company with the ironic and unfortunate name, Superfish, to display context ads even when users are viewing secure web pages. The details are technical, but suffice it to say that they employ SSL certificate trickery to fool browsers and silence any possible warnings to users.

Suddenly the previously esoteric or arcane man-in-the-middle (MITM) terminology has been thrust into the mainstream and now MITM is just as well known as Ebola, even if most people have no idea how it works.

MITM - Courtesy owasp.org

MITM - Courtesy owasp.org

The bigger question however is, does ubiquitous SSL (nowadays, TLS) really make computing safer? There has been a concerted push as of late to encrypt the entire web. Google for example has suggested that it favors secure sites over regular ones.

But as evident, SSL is no panacea for security or data privacy. It does make the job of corporate security teams harder, sucks more power from infrastructures, complicates interoperability, but worst of all, gives a false sense of security to users and admins. For example, people may simply assume that with SSL they can't get infected or their private data can't be hacked.

I am obviously not against cyber security, but there are proper times and places for that. Just because something is good when appropriately applied, it doesn't mean it's good for everything all the time. Unfortunately, society always seems to over-simplify things and take everything to absurd levels using the logic, if a little is good, a lot is better.

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