What are HTTP Security Headers?

 What are HTTP Security Headers

HTTP security headers are a set of lines that one can add to your website's code. It helps protect it from malicious attacks.

They tell the browser what is allowed and what isn't. They can also serve as a warning against possible threats. One can use these headers alone or in conjunction with other security measures such as an SSL certificate for extra protection.

In this article, we'll tell you about HTTP security headers and how they work. We will also give some examples of how you might use them for your needs.

So, keep on reading whenever you're ready to get acquainted with the importance of security headers.

HTTP: What Is It?

The Hypertext Transfer Protocol is the system that websites use to communicate with browsers from across the internet.

This protocol has been around since 1991 but didn't become widespread until 1999, when it was made a standard by Request for Comment (RFC) 2616. Since then, it's gone through several revisions and currently sits at RFC 7230-7533 under active development.

Furthermore, it's important to note that these headers are only supported by the latest versions of popular browsers. For instance, Chrome and Firefox.

There are several security-related headers you can use on your website. These include:

  • Cache Control
  • Content-Security-Policy (CSP)
  • Strict-Transport-Security (HSTS)
  • Public Key Pinning (HPKP)
  • X-XSS-Protection
  • X-Frame-Options
  • X-Content-Type-Options
  • Feature-Policy
  • Referrer-Policy
  • Permissions-Policy 

Another header exists by the name of X-Frame Option. It helps prevent clickjacking attacks but isn't considered a part of this list.

This is because it doesn't offer any protection against malicious code injections as other options do. You'll learn more about these a little bit later.

What Is A Header?

To put things simply, a "header" in computer science terms is just metadata.

It is added to communication that provides extra information. This is done without having to attach any additional files or request data from the recipient of the message.

In web development, this means adding code to your website's HTML structure. This is so that you don't have to keep sending or loading extra data to the server.

For example, suppose your website sent advertisements for other websites. In that case, you might include an affiliate code in the header.

This is so when people clicked on those links and went to another site, you could track them as coming from yours. This works even though either party made no additional requests.

This is just one example of how headers can save time and bandwidth without sacrificing security measures.

What Is the Purpose Of HTTP Security Headers?

The purpose of the headers is to communicate what is allowed and not allowed on your website.

For example, you can use one title to tell browsers that they're only allowed to load images from a particular source or in a specific format. In contrast, another might allow them access without restriction.

This helps speed up page loading times by preventing additional requests for information. For instance, when scripts are loaded rather than just working automatically with no user input needed.

Another great feature here is when security policies change. It's easy to add new rules to these codes. This will immediately take effect without requiring any changes to be made elsewhere in the codebase.

You could also prevent specific threats if necessary. For instance, preventing cross-site scripting attacks simply by adding the appropriate header.

What Are the Common Dangers That Security Headers Protect Us From?

There are several types of dangers that these headers can help protect against, including:

Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) attacks where malicious scripts are injected into the website's code. This allows attackers to gain access to user accounts and sensitive information. They can even take control of other features on your site without authorization from users.

Phishing is an attack that attempts to trick people into giving away their login credentials through fake websites. These are designed like official ones but run by hackers who want to steal money or data about their customers for nefarious purposes.

Cache poisoning occurs when incorrect responses are given back due to cached content instead of the current one. Hence, requests go out incorrectly. Thus, resulting in bad files being delivered to unsuspecting visitors unless this header prevents it.

Header injection is a standard attack where hackers insert additional code into the header to force it to do what they want. This could be stealing personal information, blocking legitimate requests.

It could be anything else that one can do with access to your website's source files. They would have control over how these headers are displayed on their pages.

Other Security Headers

Other several security headers one can implement, but the most common ones you'll see are:

  • CSP (Content Security Policy)
  • XCTO (Cross-origin resource sharing)
  • HPKP (Public Key Pinning)

All of these have their use to provide additional protection for your website against possible threats.

They're all somewhat similar in function even if they aren't used precisely the same way. Let's go over each one individually with an example or two on how they might look when activated.

CSP - Content Security Policy Header

This policy is designed to help prevent cross-site scripting attacks. This is done by allowing users to specify trusted sources from which scripts may load. One can also use it to prevent images from loading on certain pages, but this is uncommon.

The policy's directives are sent along with the header and look like "default-src 'self'". It also looks like when default refers to a set of pre-defined rules (in most cases, you'll want these). In contrast, self means that sources may only load content relative to your current page.

XCTO - Cross-Origin Resource Sharing Header

This helps mitigate the threat of cross-site request forgery attacks by allowing users to access specific files. These are outside their domain and host malicious scripts sending requests in their name. This could lead to identity theft or data loss.

XCTO occurred because websites allow users across different domains access to various folders. This is based on what they're trying to accomplish. Still, there's no standard way of handling this communication.

So when you come across something like "allow-access-from: *" in the header code, you know that anything on any other domain can access your site.

In contrast, with a more restrictive rule such as "allow-access-from: .example.com/," only users from example.com can access.
This could reduce issues where scripts are compromised or spoofed by someone not allowed access.

HPKP - Public Key Pinning Header

This was designed primarily for websites using SSL/TLS certificates. This is where it allows them to specify exactly what CAs may sign their certificates. This helps prevent certificate spoofing attacks by limiting the number of times a rogue CA can issue certificates.

This is essential when using this type of encryption. This is because it's susceptible to these types of threats which could allow attackers access to your website. They would also have access to all associated data in the process, so you'll want to take every measure possible to protect against them.

How Can A Regular User Utilize HTTP Security Headers to Protect Themselves?

When it comes to these vulnerabilities, the best thing you can do is research each. This is done before deciding what steps need to be taken to minimize the amount of exposure your site might have.

This means that if a particular security header isn't something you plan on implementing, then there's no reason for anyone using it. People will never see anything related in their browser. This could reduce alarming messages and any associated fear while browsing around online.

The most important part here is knowing how these headers work. This is so when issues arise or someone attempts an attack against one of them, you know exactly why certain things are happening. This includes where this information may come from.

If you're not sure how to handle this, you'll want to consult with someone who specializes in web design and development. This is because they'll be able to help out regardless of the situation.

You can also use some websites explicitly dedicated to testing these headers. This is to understand better what you should be seeing while browsing around online.

Ease, Security, Sharing

This gives users an easy way of checking security headers that are activated on their website or others where this is important, especially if it's your business, considering how important having access into various areas may become depending on what ends up being done over time, even though many vulnerabilities are found during beta testing before release.

That said, it never hurts exploring options related to improving the overall safety of your site based on current practices implemented by developers while testing new features.

This is incredibly beneficial to all users, including regular consumers, because it gives them an idea of how secure their connection is when they visit your site.

Still, it's also essential if one day you decide to change the location or use another CA for SSL/TLS certificates which can help reduce any potential issues associated with these types of security headers if implemented properly though this will depend on whether the content needs to be protected in the first place.

All-in-all, knowing what one may share information and who could end up seeing that data should always factor into every decision made regarding website development so that nothing slips through the cracks, even by accident. This means not only understanding each header individually but why certain things are necessary depending on what you're trying to accomplish, which can be difficult if not done correctly.

Common Mistakes Made By Browser Users

There are some common mistakes made by both web browser users and those who set up these security headers. For instance, the fact that each is often misunderstood, which can expose your site more than intended.

For example, Google has come out against using the X-Frame-Options header. This is because it's challenging to implement with modern sites such as Ajax or Javascript-rich content. 

So instead, they recommend taking advantage of their Content Security Policy Header (CSP) for this purpose if you have a website built on HTML/CSS. It provides similar functionality at a much lower risk without causing additional problems.

This means existing websites may need an update before moving forward even though there are workarounds. These are available from projects like OWASP.

To Disable Or Not to Disable

You may also want to consider using the X-XSS-Protection header for cross-site scripting (XSS) protection. This works on any website with known vulnerabilities to protect your visitors while browsing online.

This is especially important if you're running an eCommerce site or anything else where users are prompted. This has been replaced by Content Security Policy Headers on most websites today due to its lower risk involved and ease of use overall.

Another possible issue is that some developers don't understand how various headers work together. Still, one should always use them all at once. It's impossible to know what a potential attacker could do without doing their research.

Unless there was a specific reason for disabling a certain security mechanism, then it's hard to tell. This is usually only done in cases where it's essential.

In other words, try to avoid disabling any of these headers unless you have a good reason for it. For instance, they won't work correctly with your site as configured.

This can create more problems than expected over time if left up to chance even though each header plays an important role overall.

Security Headers Elaborated

The HTTP security headers are an essential tool to help protect your website.
Make sure you implement them correctly. Do not disable any of the headers unless necessary.

Over time, it can create potential problems if left up to chance. This should be avoided at all costs when possible. Doing this will also ensure that each header provides its intended functionality when they're all enabled.

Security headers can be difficult to understand and implement correctly. Still, it's worth understanding each one individually to know how best to utilize them based on what your website is designed for.

It will depend on the content itself. Thus, you should always factor into any decision made when creating a new website or updating an existing one if necessary.

If you're interested in vulnerability scanning your website, get in touch and we will ensure that you get the best possible software for the task.