Tag Archives: Web Dev

TLS: What is it and why it matters

In my normal fashion, I’m going to start this blog post with a little intro to cover my butt. Recently at work, I’ve been tasked with learning about Transport Layer Security or TLS. This blog post is my own thoughts and is not 100% accurate, but I hope you get the idea as well as I do.

What is TLS?

Well, as I said above, TLS is Transport Layer Security. It’s the encryption used by clients and servers to encrypt messages sent between the two. Some of you may remember SSL, or Secure Socket Layer. That was the predecessor of TLS. Since then, SSL has been proven to be insecure; don’t ask me how, but I do know that one example of abusing SSL is the POODLE attack. Wikipedia says “all block ciphers in SSL; and RC4, the only non-block cipher supported by SSL 3.0, is also feasibly broken”. That’s about as far back as I went with the history of TLS. All I took away from SSL is that it’s deprecated and no one should use it.

TLS encryption is a complex combination of keys, certificates, and ciphers… I’ll try to explain this but don’t punch your screen or write me an angry email if I’m wrong. Before any website traffic is sent between a client and a server, they must agree on a key and a cipher. The cipher encrypts the messages, the key decrypts them. The client and server exchange keys using a fancy algorithm and decide on a cipher that both know how to use. Certificates are like ID’s that prove a TLS connection is valid.

Why does TLS matter?

Have you ever looked at a packet as it goes across your network? If not, I suggest looking at mitmproxy.  A quick rundown for the non-network people. A request over regular unencrypted HTTP traffic is visible to everyone on the network, a hacker can grab all of the information in your request, like your password, user tokens, credit card, email address, etc. An example of a HTTP request is below from shakedos.

Lack of TLS reveals auth token

This is mitmproxy catching a pair of authorization tokens for the Tinder “dating” app. Now that the hacker has your auth token, they can inject it into their own request and gain access to your account. This is one example why it’s dangerous to send sensitive or private information over encrypted channels. So to protect your user’s information, encrypt your traffic! If this was all sent over HTTPS using TLS, then the information would not be decipherable without the client’s key.

Why everyone should use encryption

This isn’t exactly correct… but I agree with the principle. Somewhere, probably twitter, I read a couple articles linked from cryptographers about the point of early cryptography. Spies would email home over encrypted channels. While the message is unreadable, it is still sent out over the network. The only difference is instead of seeing “token: abc123” it’s “W$JT#N:SNV120934”. Network monitors that expect to see unencrypted requests can flag a request with unknown contents and trace the source. aka if our friends, the North Koreans caught an encrypted e-mail and trace it to a coffee shop, chances are they can find our spy. Did that make sense? This is the reason why everyone should encrypt things, so ALL the internet traffic is a jumbled encrypted mess, and that monitors can’t single out a specific source of an encrypted message.

Things to shoot for

There’s a lot of configuration options for TLS, even the keys are complex. The main thing to remember when setting up TLS keys is that it’s important to have a minimum of 128 bits of security. Which means RSA keys with 2048 bits or ECC keys with 224-255 bits. You can also have larger keys, but going larger is pointless if you use Elliptic Curve ciphers (ECC). In order to save time, OpenSSL stores keys on the server from clients that have already shared keys with it. These keys are encrypted using AES128-CBC and that is only as strong as 128 bits of security. Because of this, it’s also good idea to restart your server nightly in order to reset the cache of stored values.

Certificates are also important, the signature should use SHA-256 or better. Use a name that fully represents the name of the domain. Don’t use “www” or “localhost”. Certificates signed with a certain encipherment (or signature) will use the same cipher to encrypt messages, so ECDSA certificates will use ECC ciphers. Server certificates should be X.509 version 3, older ones are deprecated. Use certificates issued by a CA, not self-signed certificates. They publish information that traces a line of authority and that can be used to authenticate the certificates. If your site uses personal identity information (PII), then it’s a good idea to have a EV certificate. It’s a special TLS certificate with your companies name on it to “increase user confidence in that the site is who it claims to be”.

When defining your cipher list, it’s a good idea to only use the latest recommendations from NIST. Thanks to Mozilla, A good example of a modern cipher list is …


… This cipher list gives priority to the first ones defined, so more secure cipher are used compared to weaker versions. The last line prevents broken or deprecated ciphers from being used. Again, SHA-256 or higher is recommended and SHA-1 shouldn’t be used. It’s important to note that AES-128 is different and I believe it’s ok to use ciphers with that in it’s name. Favor GCM ciphers over CBC ciphers because it is an authenticated encryption with associated data.

Try it out!

You’re probably thinking “putting encryption on my server is hard, and if I’m going off your blog, I have no idea HOW to do it, just why I should”. However setting up TLS on your sever can be really easy thanks to a new software called LetsEncrypt. Depending on your server, it’s either really easy or kinda easy to set up. I have a Ubuntu VM and all I had to do was update Python to 2.7.9, run apt-get-update, clone their github repo, and finally run ./letsencrypt-auto certonly –apache -d blog.greenjam94.me. The software runs through it’s own installation of dependencies, it’ll open a GUI where you submit a email address and choose if you want to use http and https or just https, I suggest just https and being more secure. After that it’s all set up for you. Lets Encrypt sets up all the configuration you need, even for applications like WordPress Blogs. However I did have to change some of my links on each webpage, in a rush I made my connections to some CDNs (hosted code that I borrow) as http and that gave the browser mixed messages.

The downsides to using LetsEncrypt is that it’s a free program that obfuscates your online intentions. However, that also means it’s a free tool for hackers to hide their treasure chests of evil goodies. Google has started to notice this and is flagging some of the LetsEncrypt certificates, so chrome might tell your website visitors that you use a suspicious TLS certificate. I haven’t seen proof of that, but infosec friends warn me of this. It’s also limited to 6 month certificates, they expired pretty fast. All you need to do in order to fix this is re-run the command from above, but it’s still maintenance that needs to be accounted for. I’m sure there’s one or more sysadmins out there that have written a bash script or cron job to do just that.

Testing TLS

There are a few ways to test servers for TLS. You can use free labs provided online, like Qualys SSL labs. Another option is to use tools like OWASP’s O-Saft. If you are a sysadmin or just love to play in the console; bughunter recently blogged about a bash script that uses OpenSSL to check websites for TLS. I’ve used all three and it really comes down to what you’re looking for. All can confirm if you have it installed correctly, Qualys will give you a report card. O-Saft will give you some detailed information. Bughunter’s Bash Script will give you a list of all the available ciphers on that server.

What TLS doesn’t solve

TLS isn’t a cure for cancer, but it is important. While TLS provides connection encryption, it doesn’t equal trust, validation, or security. TLS makes it harder for hackers on the network to see what packets you’re sending, however it’s still possible for them to do a man in the middle (MITM) attack. There are additional ways to prevent that like disabling TLS renegotiation and enforcing HSTS. TLS isn’t a replacement for a good implementation of user authorization or input validation. For example, TLS can’t stop a user from using SQL injection to drop your database tables if they can bypass authentication and impersonate one of your users. Their injections will just be encrypted as it comes flying towards your database. Just because a site has TLS doesn’t mean it should also be automatically trusted. Don’t give a site your SSN or credit card just because you see a lock in the URL window.

TLS Takeaways

Here’s a quick wrap up. SSL is old, don’t use it. TLS encrypts regular website traffic and makes it safer. Everyone should use encryption so the few that need it don’t get singled out. 128 bits of security is ideal. Installing TLS is easy with LetsEncrypt, it’s not a perfect fit and there are downsides but it’s a quick start. Test your TLS make sure it works. I hope you liked this blog post, I really enjoy this topic and will probably be doing a presentation on it at Misec in the coming months. I’ll be learning more and revising this as I do, please reach out to me if you have any advice.

Spartan Hackers Website

Hello again, I am going to share my love hate relationship with my latest web design project: spartanhackers.com Some background information, Spartan Hackers is a group at Michigan State University that holds weekly events to introduce students to various technical skills that they can use at hackathons like Spartahack.

The Beginning

Spartan Hackers started up just last year, and only had a few members to run everything. The president at the time wrote a nice website for the club that was using only static content and the grayscale bootstrap theme. This worked great for last year, but the club is growing exponentially, I guess everyone wants to be a hacker. I’m the current webmaster for Spartan Hackers and it’s my job to maintain the website. However with my years of experience I thought I could spice it up and get the site working a lot better.

The Redesign

The first major change I added was a quick new page to let people sign in to events. If you’re an old member, just type in your e-mail. Otherwise you have to complete a form with your name and major. This page has helped us a lot with tracking attendance and seeing how many people come back to events versus how many people are new. I really enjoy the concept of this modification… but in process of creating this page. I realized how sloppy I can be when I’m writing code at two or three in the morning. It’s a combination of Javascript, PHP, and MySQL with a lack of functions, classes, and clear structure (in my opinion). So before I made any more changes I started looking for a better alternative that would make the code more readable because I won’t be the web master forever, and I don’t want the next person to scrap my website design.

Spartan Hackers get some help from Node

So in order to get what I want, I asked for some help from some front end developers where I work. They suggested I use Node.js because I needed something lightweight, easy to use, and I wanted to clean up the URLs by using CRUD and RESTful methods as well. The idea in my mind and the wireframes I showed to the rest of the eboard looks pretty sweet. We can track members, events, hackathons, all in the database. We can hook up APIs to social media and connect everything to the website instead of going to each account and posting about events. I have this great idea in my head for a grandiose website, but I am missing something… maybe time, or maybe the experience with Node. But right now development is at a halt.

Challenges & Future Goals

I’ve run into a couple of challenges. I based the website off of a guided tutorial I did at work to learn Node.js and that means that certain files were already created for me like server.js and folders were already created to manage the file structure. However, I’m at the point in my conversion where I am not sure what to do next. I want to continue building the site and making it functional, but this is a road block I haven’t been able to get past. Any help would be appreciated, you can find it on my Github at this repo.

The future of this website is unknown. The e-board transitions in December which means I only have two months (on top of college and two part time jobs) to get past that road block and finish development. I really want to crank this out and show everyone what I have planned, so that I can prove my website development skills to my classmates. In retrospect, switching to a new framework probably wasn’t my best idea. But the temptation of how awesome this website could be made me do it. I’ll keep you posted on whether or not I finish this project by December.

Remodeling lcori.com

If you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that I do some consulting on the side for some websites. LCORI is the Lake Chemung Outdoor Resort in Howell, Michigan. My grandma has been working on the board for more than a few years. She came to me asking to help fix the navbar on www.lcori.com, and I was happy to help.

After getting into the code, I saw that it was a bit of a mess. There was poor formatting and only basic functionality. So I offered to remake the website, do a little bit of renovation work trying to turn a 1990s, html table based website into a responsive modern design. Sounds easy right? Well it should have been, strip the tables, include some twitter Bootstrap and everything becomes shinny. Even the database connections and php were pretty straight forward.

If you’ve read my post about making the EMU gymnastics club’s website. You know I’ve had some issues with initial design and communication. This project proved to require many more months then expected. The initial redesign took only hours. The HTML was easy. I got caught on the dynamics of the listings page. Little to my knowledge, this was the “most important” part of the site, since it was where resort lots were sold. I ran into many issues with new features, and making old processes easier. Where I thought I was simplifying someone’s work, they struggled with the new process. Gladly though, after a couple meetings with the clients. I was able to straighten things out and make everyone happy. This project was expected to take a month. It ended up taking seven. That’s why I’m relieved to tell everyone the site is finally up to par and the clients are happy!

COGSS Website: Automated Scoring for Collegiate Gymnastics

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that my girlfriend is on a gymnastics team. I did their club website for them a while ago. I went to a meet they hosted their year and helped out as much as possible. They were using a Microsoft Excel sheet to do all of their scoring for each event. While watching the guy use excel, I got a headache just trying to follow the complex steps that were set up for it… so I had the bright idea to set up a website that simplifies the process and allow anyone to use it for their meets as well.

At first I made a site of my own design and tried to recreate the excel sheet as best I could from memory. When I completed the site, it got less then a warm welcome from my girlfriend’s gymnastics team… in fact she was the only one to say anything about it to me. So here I am, completely redesigning the site and discussing wireframes with her. I plan on redoing the site and following NAIGC rules for the scoring.

The next competition is in the spring of 2016. I hope to finish the project this summer. I’ll update this post when it’s completed.

EMU Gymnastics Club Website

One of my first “professional” website creations. Making the club’s website gave me a solid 4.0 in a college web design class where I reviewed the basics of CSS, Javascript, and HTML5. Fun stuff really.

What I learned by doing this project is how important initial design and communication is. Working with a client (in this case, the “client” is my girlfriend a.k.a club President) means that you can’t just look at the website and think “Good enough, ship it”. It has to meet their requirements first and foremost. A good draft means you should be able to make it once and need only a few updates, which is a lot easier than making thousands of revisions each time your client asks for something different.

That being said, looking back on your work and seeing what can be improved is always worthwhile! When I first hosted the project, the website looked decent. Most of the CSS work was custom and I was using a very robust HTML template. I went back recently and overhauled it, scrapping the files completely and using new frameworks like twitter Bootstrap. The new design is much more responsive and looks cleaner in my opinion. I’m getting more feedback from the club so I think they are more enthusiastic about it.

You can see the difference on my github pages.