Performance Questions to Ask Hosting Providers: Secure Website Access
(This is the third article in a series of articles about performance questions you should ask when choosing a hosting provider. The first article, “What control do I have over the web server?” and the second article “What access do you provide to web server logs?” are also available.)
So far in this series we have talked a lot about questions to ask hosting providers to make sure you can configure your website for performance and access the raw traffic logs of your website to spot performance problems. All of this is moot of course if you cannot get content onto your website. That’s why this post of “Questions to ask a hosting provider” is all about:
“Can I Securely Communicate With My Website?”
It has happened to everyone. You are out at a coffee shop, a client site, or at a conference and you need to make changes to your website. Perhaps you need to upload a few new PHP files or some images. Perhaps you need to update your web server configuration to set up a new email address for an event. Perhaps you simply saw something cool and want to write a WordPress post. But can you do anything of these things securely using a public network? This question is best answered with an analogy.
Imagine you are at a formal cocktail party. You drift from room to room, through a sea of lavishly dressed party goers and dine on mouth-watering morsels served on silver trays by waiters in white gloves. As you approach a side table of crystal champagne glasses you overhear bits and pieces of the conversations around you.
- “We cannot wait. It should be a lovely vacation and it’s the perfect time for us to get away for a week.”
- “That’s right, with the nanny! Walked right in on them! And he tried to say that she was only choking!”
- “Chris starts there next spring, just like his father.”
Well attended cocktail parties are loud and noisy. Its almost impossible not to hear what everyone else is saying! Of course we are taught that to be polite we should ignore the conversations other people are having unless we are involved. You are on the honor system not to eavesdrop.
Public networks such as wireless networks are just like cocktail parties. Your wireless card is like a party guest. It broadcasts out to the room when it “speaks” and “listens” to everyone within range to hear a response. Like a real party guest, wireless cards are supposed to ignore any conversations that they overhear that is not meant for them. They do this by dropping the data and not bubbling it up to the computer. However nothing forces network devices to ignore data they receive that is not meant for them. In fact, all networking devices (not just wireless devices) can be placed into “Promiscuous Mode” where any data they receive, even data that is not addressed to themselves, is received and bubbled up to the computer to process. This allows any networking device to become a giant listening device that hears and records all the information on the network! Promiscuous mode is not some evil hacker trick. It’s a fully intended feature of networking devices that has many legitimate uses.
But wait! I use Encryption!
“The conference wireless network or the coffee shops wireless network is encrypted. They tell me they use something called WPA2 with a key of a million bits! I’m secure right?”
No, you are not secure.
Let’s go back to the cocktail party analogy. The hosts don’t want just anyone coming into their party and drinking all their fine wines. So they place a bouncer at the door of the party. Only people that know the password are allowed into the party. If you know the password you get into the party and can listen to all the other guests. If you do not know the password you remain outside the building and cannot hear anything that is going on inside.
Encrypted wireless networks are just cocktail parties with bouncers. You need the “password” to join the wireless network. Once you are connected you can listen to everyone else’s traffic just like before because on the network everyone is using the same password to transmit and receive their data. (This is the only scalable solution. Otherwise the wireless network administrator would have to create a new, unique password for each and every person that joins the network). In other words, an encrypted network uses the password solely to protect and restrict “access” to the network. It does nothing to protect the users of the network from themselves or from each other.
The Danger of Sniffing (packets)
So What! Who cares if someone can listen to my network traffic. It’s not a big deal. After all they will just see the blog content I was about to post anyway. Unfortunately this is not true. Using any system that requires a username and a password on a wireless network? You may have shouted to the entire cocktail party that username and password. And chances are you use that same username and password somewhere else on the Internet. Like your bank. Or an online store. Are you already logged into a system like Gmail or your WordPress administration panel? You are shouting your HTTP Cookies to the entire cocktail party. Someone can steal your HTTP session cookies and use session hijacking to access Gmail or WordPress as if they were you without needing your username and password. Next thing you know you are on The Wall Of Sheep!
Secure Communications With Your Website
Remember: network encryption protects networks and application encryption protects applications! You need to make sure you are using encrypted application protocols to properly protect yourself. What protocols you use and how you use them will vary with different use cases.
How do you upload content to your website? If the answer is FTP you are in trouble. FTP sends usernames and passwords in the clear. You need an encrypted file transfer mechanism like SFTP or SCP. If you have shell access to your web server using SSH you also have the ability to use either SFTP or SCP as they are simply subsets of the functionality of SSH. By default most hosting companies provide an insecure file transfer system like FTP. Ask if they provide (for free) a secure file transfer system like SFTP or SCP. Make sure they understand you don’t need full SSH functionality and are only interested in secure file transfer. If this is not available you might need to upgrade your account or purchase an add-on to get SSH access for your website.
Do you use a web interface to write content for your blog platform or CMS system? Does it use SSL? Check the address bar. Does it start with https? If not you are not using SSL. Do you write your content using other software? Does that software directly publish the content to your blog using a web API like RSD or XMLRPC? Does that use SSL? Check the settings and see if you are using “https” to access the API interface. If you are not using SSL to communicate with these web resources then anyone can capture your username and password or cookies (which are just as good as your username and password).
How do you administer your website? Do you use a web interface like cPanel? These web administration interfaces are most common in shared hosting environments and typically run on a different hostname or an odd port number. Ask the hosting provider if they offer SSL access to the interface. Hosting providers often get confused and think you want to create an SSL certificate for your website. While this would secure a CMS you configure like WordPress (see previous use case) it does not help you secure the web administration interface because that is often running on a separate system. Make sure they understand you want secure access to their interface, not your website. This discussion may take several emails back and forth but most hosting providers are willing to supply SSL access to cPanel or other administration interfaces.
In conclusion, the questions about secure communications you should ask your hosting provider are:
- “Do you provide a secure file transfer mechanism like SFTP or SCP? Is it provided for free or is it extra? If you don’t do you offer SSH access to the web server? Is it free?”
- “If you provide a web-based website administration interface like cPanel do you provide access to it using SSL?”
- “Do you provide an SSL certificate for my CMS? What is the cost?”
How to judge their answers will vary from person to person based on need. Personally, a secure file transfer mechanism is a requirement. Too many times have I needed to upload a presentation, PDF, or file to my website from a public network at a conference or client site. If you have a heavy blogger secure access to your content management system is going to be critical. After all, it is difficult to write a blog post about an event from the event if you cannot securely access your blog to write the post!