Cybersecurity

Agencies making uneven progress in adopting HTTPS

broken lock

Some federal agencies are much further along than others in meeting a year-end deadline to adopt the HTTPS protocol for public websites, with 41 percent of federal domains having made the switch as of April 1, according to official data.

A June 2015 memo from the Office of Management and Budget gave federal websites until Dec. 31, 2016, to transition to HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) from the less secure HTTP. The directive emphasized that web services that involve the exchange of personally identifiable information should adopt HTTPS as soon as possible. It also encouraged, but did not require, the use of HTTPS for internal networks that aren't connected to the public internet.

HTTPS encrypts a user's connection to a website, authenticates the site and protects the data exchanged by the user and the website. It is by no means a panacea for secure connections but has become a standard for website security.

Agencies vary widely in their progress in adopting HTTPS. The Library of Congress is a laggard: Just 5 percent of 37 domains listed are using HTTPS, according to the data. By contrast, the Executive Office of the President is much further along in switching to the more secure protocol, with 80 percent of its 30 domains having done so.

The Department of Homeland Security, whose mission includes defending federal civilian networks from hacks, has 75 percent of 24 listed domains using HTTPS, according to the data. The General Services Administration had the second-highest number of domains at 91, and 59 percent use HTTPS.

The Defense Department, meanwhile, has room for improvement. Only 36 percent of 25 listed DOD domains have made the switch.

The data reveals a distinction between the percentage of federal domains that use HTTPS and those that "enforce" the protocol or use it by default. At the Executive Office of the President, for example, there is 33 percent enforcement -- nearly a 50 percent drop from the share of domains using the protocol.

The scorecard also evaluates agencies' Secure Sockets Layer configuration via a grading scheme established by Qualys SSL Labs.

The Office of Personnel Management, which suffered a devastating breach that exposed the personal information of millions of Americans, posted some of the higher HTTPS metrics. Of the agency's 20 domains listed in the data, 75 percent use and enforce HTTPS, while 60 percent earned an SSL Labs grade of A-minus or higher.

Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the 18F digital services unit at GSA for including the SSL Labs grade in the scorecard.

"It's often the case that giving people a letter grade can motivate them to fix things," he told FCW.

Soghoian has been an evangelist for broader adoption of HTTPS. He was part of a group of security researchers who wrote an open letter in 2009 to then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt asking the tech giant to set HTTPS as a default for Gmail. Google announced in January 2010 that it was doing just that.

Back then, hardly any federal websites used HTTPS, Soghoian said. But in the past year, there has been a steady uptick in agencies turning on HTTPS by default or using better encryption algorithms, he added.

"It used to be that the government lagged behind industry, and really there's been a remarkable transformation to the point that now I think many agencies are in fact leading the way with industry following," Soghoian said.

"The White House website is encrypted by default, but Amazon's still isn't," he added.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a former FCW staff writer.

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