A .gov website that uses HTTPS encryption by default for its visitors is a superb example of “privacy by design.” On March 6th, the Federal Trade Commission enabled encryption for FTC.gov. When I visited whitehouse.gov tonight, I found that the White House digital team had flipped the site for what’s likely the most prominent government website in the world. The White House Web team confirmed the change just after midnight.
— WH.gov (@WHWeb) March 11, 2015
According to Leigh Heyman, director of new media technologies at the White House, over the next few days, the team be migrating other domains, like the bare domain name, whitehouse.gov, and m.whitehouse.gov, over to HTTPS as well, joining http://www.whitehouse.gov.
“Americans care about their privacy, and that’s what the White House’s move to HTTPS by default is about,” said Eric Mill, an open government software engineer at 18F. “The White House’s use of HTTPS protects visitors’ personal information and browsing activity when they connect to whitehouse.gov across the vast, unpredictable network of computers that is the internet.”
If you’re unfamiliar with HTTPS, it’s a way of encrypting the way you connect to a Web server online. Specifically, HTTPS refers to layering the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) on top of the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS). What that means in practice is that your requests to the Web server and the pages results from it are encrypted and decrypted. Why does that matter? Consider, for instance, if someone is looking up sensitive health information online and visits a government website without HTTPS that also has data collection.
“Use of https is generally considered to be good practice, however, as opposed to unencrypted, regular http, although it adds a small amount of extra processing and delay to do the encryption,” commented Eugene Spafford, a Purdue University computer science professor and founder and executive director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security.
“HTTPS primarily provides three things: greater authentication, stream privacy, and message integrity. A quick look at the site doesn’t reveal (to me) anything that would likely require privacy or heightened message integrity. The most immediate consequence is that parties connecting to the website can have increased confidence of the site’s authenticity because a signed certificate will be employed. Of course, most people don’t actually verify certificates and their roots (cf. Superfish), so this isn’t an ironclad identification.”
Why does this matter?
“This immediately creates a strong baseline of privacy and security for anyone in the world, American or otherwise, who visits the White House website — whether to read their blog, learn more about the President, download official policies, or anything else inside whitehouse.gov,” said Mill.
“At a basic level, what a person sees and does on whitehouse.gov should be between them and the White House. When someone reads official policies published on whitehouse.gov, they should be confident that policy is real and authentic. The White House’s use of HTTPS by default means those promises just got a lot stronger.”
Ashkan Soltani, the FTC’s chief technologist, explained why that federal agency shifted at the Tech@FTC blog:
As a quick primer, HTTPS encryption secures your communications while in transit with websites so that only you and the website are able to view the content. The lock icon now appearing in your browser represents that the communication is encrypted and eavesdroppers are unable to look in. At this time, secure browsing is generally not a requirement for federal websites, but it is considered an industry best practice. Transit encryption is an important safeguard against eavesdroppers and has been the subject of previous investigations where we alleged companies failed to live up to their security promises when collecting personal information. It’s an important step when websites or apps collect personal information, and is a great best practice even if they don’t.
What broader trends does this tap into?
The White House moving to HTTPS is part of a larger move to lead by example in promoting privacy and security best practices, related Soltani, over email.
“I believe we’ll see a slow shift over the next few years of websites and services moving to HTTPS by default,” he said, “something a number of standards bodies including ISOC, IETF, and IAB have also called for.”
Along with FTC.gov, Mill highlighted the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), the independent agency charged with balancing the rights of American citizens against the security steps taken in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, to HTTPS.
They’re far from alone: “Last month, 18F worked with 19 other .gov domains to go the distance to ensure browsers would always connect to them over HTTPS,” said Mill.
“Tt’s important to understand that what’s happening now in the federal government is what the broader internet has been working on for a while: making privacy the default.
The standards bodies that guide the internet’s development are recommending that the internet be encrypted by default, instructing their working groups to prioritize encryption in new protocol development, and declaring a more secure future for the web. The fastest versions of HTTP today already require encryption in major browsers, and it’s becoming easier to imagine a future where web browsers proactively warn users about unencrypted websites.
This is also why every .gov that 18F builds with its partner agencies uses HTTPS, full stop. We work hard to demonstrate that HTTPS can be fast, inexpensive, and easy. It’s a better future, and a practical one.”
The kind of privacy and security the White House is offering its visitors is what we should come to expect from the entire web, not just websites someone thinks are “sensitive”. All Web browsing is sensitive, and the White House’s leadership here reinforces that.”
It looks like Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist at the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project in the American Civil Liberties Union, is going to have a good day tomorrow.
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) January 1, 2015
While the Obama administration has taken its lumps on digital privacy after revelations of bulk surveillance of the Internet backbone by the National Security Agency, this is undeniably an important step towards securing the traffic of millions of people who visit whitehouse.gov every month.
Now that the White House is leading by example, hopefully other federal, state and local government entities will also adopt the standard.
“Everyone should want a simple feeling of privacy as they use the web, and confidence that they’re at the real and exact website they meant to visit,” said Mill. “While not everyone is highly attuned to watching for that padlock in their browser, the more websites that add it — especially high profile ones like the White House — the more that people can depend on that promise being met.”
— 18F (@18F) March 11, 2015