Observatory by Mozilla: Making the Web Safer

It’s been over 25 years since Tim Berners-Lee created the first web browser, giving humanity the ability to easily access and transmit information with people both strange and familiar. And in the following 25 years of evolution, browser makers such as Mozilla, Microsoft, and Google have created numerous security technologies to protect both users and websites from bad actors from those whose goals are to steal user secrets, install malware, or otherwise ruin Berners-Lee’s vision of what the world wide web could be.

Unfortunately, due to their complexity, many of these technologies have struggled with adoption. Critical security technologies such as HTTPS are in use by only 40% of the world wide web, and adoption rates for other technologies only drop from there. Today, I (and Mozilla) am proud to release Observatory by Mozilla as a way to raise awareness of these security measure.

Observatory is a simple tool that allows site operators to quickly assess not just if they are using these technologies, but also helps them identify how well they’re being used. It uses a simple grading system to provide near instant feedback on site improvements as they are made. To assist developers and administrators, Observatory also provides links to quality documentation that demonstrates how these technologies work.

We’re All Failing

Just how bad is adoption? Well, the Observatory has been used to scan over 1.3 million websites so far, and 91% of them don’t take advantage of modern security advances. These aren’t tiny sites either; among these 1.3 million websites are some of the most popular websites in the world.

Overall Results
Passing 121,984
Failing 1,212,826
Total Scans 1,334,810

When nine out of 10 websites receive a failing grade, it’s clear that this is a problem for everyone. And by “everyone”, I’m including Mozilla — among our thousands of sites, a great deal of them fail to pass. We’re working very hard to fix them all! In fact, we’ve already used the Observatory to help improve many of our web sites, including addons.mozilla.org, bugzilla.mozilla.org, and mozillians.org.

We’re using the Observatory as a way to democratize website security best practices, and increase transparency around the application (or lack) of existing security features. We hope to help everyone make things better.

How and Why We Built Observatory

A little over a year ago, I was fortunate to be offered a job at Mozilla, helping to improve the security of their many websites. Finally, I would have an easy job where I could put my feet up and relax all day. After all, Mozilla makes Firefox — one of the world’s most popular web browsers — so it was a certainty in my mind that their websites would be locked down, secure, and fully taking advantage of all the security technologies that Mozilla had helped create.

With a future of easy work secured, I wrote a small scanning tool to examine Mozilla’s websites and report just how well we were doing. As it examined each new site, I realized with growing dismay that my future would indeed not be filled with relaxation but instead with many tiring hours of actual work. It turned out that Mozilla — Mozilla! — didn’t do a better job of keeping up with modern website security practices than any other company or group I had worked with before.

Closing the Knowledge Gap

For most security engineers, the next several months would be exclusively devoted to getting their own sites set up properly. Luckily, because I work for Mozilla, I was in a unique position. After all, Mozilla's mission isn’t simply to make a great web browser, but to improve the internet as a whole. I was encouraged to to work on my scanning tool and make it available for the world to use.

It turns out that knowledge of all these technologies was considerably more difficult to acquire than I had assumed - even for security professionals. In retrospect, it’s not surprising: these technologies are spread over dozens of standard documents and while individual articles may talk about them, there wasn’t one place to go for site operators to learn what each of the technologies do, how to implement them, and how important they were.

Guidelines and documentation are one thing: you can write documentation until you’re blue in the face, but if people aren’t interested in implementing them, adoption rates will still suffer. And so it was one day while working on a tool to test these same Mozilla sites that I struck upon an idea. A site called SSL Labs that tests website’s SSL/TLS configurations had done immeasurably good for the internet by gamifying the process of improving your server’s configuration. Faced with a public letter grade, users, organizations, and companies quickly moved towards improving their configuration.

Drawing upon their experiences, I went to work wrapping the Observatory in an easy-to-use website to make this knowledge available to more than just security professionals. Now anybody with a web browser, URL, and a bit of curiousity will be able to investigate the problems that their sites may have. By providing accessible and transparent results, every member of a development team - regardless of skill level and specialization - will be able to check the URLs that they own or depend on so that they can help push for better security practices that benefit all of us.

How does it work?

Just visit the site, enter a domain and click “scan me”. That’s it! You’ll get a report back. Below you can see the report for addons.mozilla.org, the website that Firefox users use to download new addons for their browser. It’s one of Mozilla’s most important websites, and served as an early test case for the Observatory.

Addons scanned with Observatory

When we first scanned it, addons.mozilla.org got an F, just like 91% of all websites. Assisted by the constant feedback of a slowly increasing grade and clear guidance on what needed fixing, the engineers on the addons team quickly improved their grade to an A+,

Testing (and Fixing) Made Easy

The Observatory performs a multitude of checks across roughly a dozen tests. You may not have heard of many of them, and that’s because their documentation is spread across thousands of articles, hundreds of websites, and dozens of specifications. In fact, despite some of these standards being old enough to have children (see Appendix below), their usage rate amongst the internet’s million most popular websites ranges from 30% for HTTPS all the way down to a depressingly low .005% for Content Security Policy.

Each test you run with the Observatory not only tells you how well you’ve implemented a given standard, but it links back to Mozilla’s single-page web security guidelines, which have descriptions, reasonings, and implementation examples for every test. You can use these guidelines in concert with Observatory scans to continuously improve and monitor the state of your website. For administrators who have lots of sites to test or developers who want to integrate it into their development process, we offer both an API and command-line tools.

We Can’t All Be Perfect

Of course, the results for the Observatory may not be perfectly accurate for your site -- after all, the security needs of a site like GitHub are a good deal more complicated than those of a personal blog. By encouraging the adoption of these standards even for low-risk sites, we hope to make developers, system administrators, and security professionals around the world comfortable and familiar with them. With their newfound knowledge and experience, we hope move from a 91% failure rate to a world with mostly passing grades, with more and more sites proudly displaying their A+ rating on the Observatory by Mozilla.

Want to help make the web a safer place? Let’s work together by testing your site today!

** Appendix: A Brief History of Web Security Technologies **

Year Technology Attack Vector Adoption†
1995 Secure HTTP (HTTPS) Man-in-the-middle
Network eavesdropping
1997 Secure Cookies Network eavesdropping 1.88%
2008 X-Content-Type-Options MIME type confusion 6.19%
2009 - 2011 HttpOnly Cookies Cross-site scripting (XSS)
Session theft
2009 - 2011 X-Frame-Options Clickjacking 6.83%
2010 X-XSS-Protection Cross-site scripting 5.03%
2010 - 2015 Content Security Policy Cross-site scripting .012%
2012 HTTP Strict Transport Security Man-in-the-middle
Network eavesdropping
2013 - 2015 HTTP Public Key Pinning Certificate misissuance .414%
2014 HSTS Preloading Man-in-the-middle .158%
2014 - 2016 Subresource Integrity Content Delivery Network (CDN) compromise .015%
2015 - 2016 SameSite Cookies Cross-site reference forgery (CSRF) N/A
2015 - 2016 Cookie Prefixes Cookie overrides by untrusted sources N/A
† Adoption rate amongst the Alexa top million websites as of April 2016.

[Category: Security] [Tags: Observatory]