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The idea of secure network protocols is to create an additional layer between the application and the transport/network layer to provide services for a secure end-to-end communication channel. TCP/IP are almost always used as transport/network layer protocols on the Internet and their task is to provide a reliable end-to-end connection between remote tasks on different machines that intend to communicate. The services on that level are usually directly utilized by application protocols to exchange data, for example, HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) for web services. Unfortunately, the network layer transmits this data unencrypted, leaving it vulnerable to eavesdropping or tampering attacks. In addition, the authentication mechanisms of TCP/IP are only minimal, thereby allowing a malicious user to hijack connections and redirect traffic to his machine as well as impersonate legitimate services. These threats are mitigated by secure network protocols that provide privacy and data integrity between two communicating applications by creating an encrypted and authenticated channel.

SSL has emerged as the de-facto standard for secure network protocols. Originally developed by Netscape, its latest version SSL 3.0 is also the base for the standard proposed by the IETF under the name TLS. Both protocols are quite similar and share common ideas, but they, unfortunately, can not inter-operate. The following discussion will mainly concentrate on SSL and only briefly explain the extensions implemented in TLS. The SSL protocol usually runs above TCP/IP (although it could use any transport protocol) and below higher-level protocols such as HTTP. It uses TCP/IP on behalf of the higher-level protocols, and in the process allows an SSL-enabled server to authenticate itself to an SSL-enabled client, allows the client to authenticate itself to the server, and allows both machines to establish an encrypted connection. These capabilities address fundamental concerns about communication over the Internet and other TCP/IP networks and give protection against message tampering, eavesdropping, and spoofing.

  • SSL server authentication allows a user to confirm a server’s identity. The SSL-enabled client software can use standard techniques of public-key cryptography to check that a server’s certificate and public key are valid and have been issued by a certification authority (CA) listed in the client’s list of trusted CAs. This confirmation might be important if the user, for example, is sending a credit card number over the network and wants to check the receiving server’s identity.
  • SSL client authentication allows a server to confirm a user’s identity. Using the same techniques as those used for server authentication, SSL-enabled server software can check that a client’s certificate and public key are valid and have been issued by a certification authority (CA) listed in the server’s list of trusted CAs. This confirmation might be important if the server, for example, is a bank sending confidential financial information to a customer and wants to check the recipient’s identity.
  • An encrypted SSL connection requires all information sent between a client and a server to be encrypted by the sending software and decrypted by the receiving software, thus providing a high degree of confidentiality. Confidentiality is important for both parties to any private transaction. In addition, all data sent over an encrypted SSL connection is protected with a mechanism for detecting tampering – that is, for automatically determining whether the data has been altered in transit.

SSL uses X.509 certificates for authentication, RSA as its public-key cipher, and one of RC4-128, RC2 128, DES, Triple DES, or IDEA as its bulk symmetric cipher. The SSL protocol includes two sub-protocols, namely the SSL Record Protocol and the SSL Handshake Protocol. The SSL Record Protocol simply defines the format used to transmit data. The SSL Handshake Protocol (using the SSL Record Protocol) is utilized to exchange a series of messages between an SSL-enabled server and an SSL-enabled client when they first establish an SSL connection. This exchange of messages is designed to facilitate the following actions.

  • Authenticate the server to the client.
  • Allow the client and server to select the cryptographic algorithms, or ciphers, that they both support.
  • Optionally authenticate the client to the server.
  • Use public-key encryption techniques to generate shared secrets.
  • Establish an encrypted SSL connection based on the previously exchanged shared secret.

The SSL Handshake Protocol is composed of two phases. Phase 1 deals with the selection of a cipher, the exchange of a secret key, and the authentication of the server. Phase 2 handles client authentication, if requested, and finishes the handshaking. After the handshake stage is complete, the data transfer between client and server begins. All messages during handshaking and after, are sent over the SSL Record Protocol layer. Optionally, session identifiers can be used to re-established a secure connection that has been previously set up.

The message exchanges show that the client first sends a challenge to the server which responds with an X.509 certificate containing its public key. The client then creates a secret key and uses RSA with the server’s public key to encrypt it, sending the result back to the server. Only the server is capable of decrypting that message with its private key and can retrieve the shared, secret key. In order to prove to the client that the secret key has been successfully decrypted, the server encrypts the client’s challenge with the secret key and returns it. When the client is able to decrypt this message and successfully retrieves the original challenge by using the secret key, it can be certain that the server has access to the private key corresponding to its certificate. From this point on, all communication is encrypted using the chosen cipher and the shared secret key. TLS uses the same two protocols shown above and a similar handshake mechanism. Nevertheless, the algorithms for calculating message authentication codes (MACs) and secret keys have been modified to make them cryptographically more secure. In addition, the constraints on padding a message up to the next block size have been relaxed for TLS. This leads to an incompatibility between both protocols.

SSL/TLS is widely used to secure web and mail traffic. HTTP as well as the current mail protocols IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) and POP3 (post office protocol, version 3) transmit user credential information as well as application data unencrypted. By building them on top of a secure network protocol such as SSL/TLS, they can benefit from secured channels without modifications. The secure communication protocols simply utilize different well-known destination ports (443 for HTTPS, 993 for IMAPS, and 995 for POP3S) than their insecure cousins.

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