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[ NNSquad ] Google Modifies SSL Behavior -- and the Results Are Troubling

        Google Modifies SSL Behavior -- and the Results Are Troubling


A few days ago in another venue, I noted that Google has moved toward
default SSL search for its logged-in users.  I have long been an
advocate for broader use of SSL encryption, as a means to protect
users' data from third-party observation and manipulation, so I
applauded this move by Google ( http://j.mp/r9gcRD [Google+] ).

In that posting, I noted that there were some issues related to Web
"referers" (that's the correct spelling in this context!) when used in
SSL environments.

This isn't the time or place to get into a philosophical discussion of
referers and whether or not data contained therein (such as user
search queries) really should or should not have become standard
operating procedure on the Web.  As I've discussed previously, I am
not in the "referers are always evil" camp, and I view the issues
surrounding referers as being complex ( http://j.mp/rmnip5 [Lauren's Blog] ).

I've now had time to further study the referer/SSL situation with
Google's new default SSL environment -- and to discuss the situation
with Google -- and I'm frankly troubled by some of what I've found.
In particular, certain changes that Google has apparently made in the
normally expected SSL handling of referers may be viewed by some
observers as at least creating the appearance of a "pay to play" push
toward Google advertising.

This gets rather complicated quickly, and I'm basing the description
that follows on the best information I have at this point.  If I learn
more later of note I will update as appropriate.

Please refer to my chart as we proceed:
http://j.mp/mUQF8w  (Lauren's Blog)

One of the basic rules of SSL is that data is supposed to be protected
from end-to-end.  In particular, when a SSL-based query is made of a
search engine, the expected behavior is that referer query data will
not be passed along to sites clicked in the results unless those sites
are also running SSL (subject to default browser and plugins settings,
which would normally pass through this data).

This is indeed the reported behavior on Google's original encrypted
search site -- branded as "SSL Beta" -- at
https://encrypted.google.com.  Users have been able to manually use
this site for quite some time, by specifying it as a direct URL
(either https:, or http: which diverts to https:).  As you can see on
the chart, referer query data from https://encrypted.google.com is
passed to both "Ordinary" and "Ad" sites if those sites are https:
(SSL), otherwise the referer query info is blocked.

However, Google has apparently altered this expected sequence for
their new https://www.google.com -- which can be reached either by
direct URL, or via automatic redirect from http: as described above
for logged-in Google users.

There are two variations reported from expected SSL behavior on this
version of the site, as denoted by the red boxes on the chart.

Normally, we would expect an ordinary destination site using SSL to
receive the referer query data as per standard SSL end-to-end
behavior.  But apparently Google is now blocking this data in this
case, as shown in the first red box.

Even more problematically, in the second red box we observe that for
user clicks on Google ads, the ad site will receive the referer query
info from the SSL search, even if that ad site is not using https: --
that is, isn't even using SSL at all -- seemingly directly violating
the normally expected end-to-end SSL protection sequence.

Again, I am not anti-referer.  I appreciate the value of referer query
data for legitimate Search Engine Optimization (SEO), for ordinary Web
site operators, and of course for advertisers.

Google notes a number of mitigating factors.  They feel that they
attempted to strike a balance between security and the needs of
advertisers, and point out that only a small percentage (logged-in
users, less than 10% of total searches currently) of queries are
diverted to https://www.google.com.  They also note that some search
query data (though clearly not of the same depth as raw referer query
data) is available through their (quite excellent, I will note)
Webmaster Tools.

Still, these are quantitative, not qualitative limitations, and use of
https://www.google.com can only be expected to expand.

So long as Google stayed within the normal, expected operating
parameters of SSL in relation to referer queries, as with
https://encrypted.google.com, they were on very firm ground.

But by changing the expected SSL behavior for https://www.google.com,
they have created the appearance of a situation where -- as far as
referer query data is concerned in this context -- it could be
construed as necessary to buy Google ads to either obtain query data
when you otherwise wouldn't be able to obtain it, or to keep receiving
it in a situation where you ordinarily would have expected to receive
it anyway.

My recommendation is fairly simple.  In the optimum case,
https://www.google.com should behave in the same manner that
https://encrypted.google.com does now.  As an alternative to ease the
situation for advertisers, they could keep receiving query data from
https://www.google.com -- even over http: links -- for a limited
period to provide transition time for them to move to full https: SSL.
This would also serve the laudable goal of further encouraging the
adoption of SSL.  At the end of the designated transition period, if
ad sites were still not on https:, they would no longer receive
referer query data.  And needless to say, any site that runs https: --
whether they buy ads or not -- should be able to receive referer query
data if ad sites can receive that data.

Google is clearly aware of the controversy surrounding their SSL
situation.  And one of Google's great strengths is their robust
internal deliberation process and willingness to change course as

It will be interesting to see how this saga transpires.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com): http://www.vortex.com/lauren 
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: http://www.pfir.org 
 - Network Neutrality Squad: http://www.nnsquad.org 
 - Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance: http://www.gctip.org
 - PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com 
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com 
Google+: http://vortex.com/g+lauren 
Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein 
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 / Skype: vortex.com