Wednesday, 18 September 2019 17:48

How much do you trust your browser? Are they search engines or ad platforms?

Author:  [Source: This article was published in aei.org By Shane Tews]

[Source: This article was published in aei.org By Shane Tews - Uploaded by the Association Member: Jennifer Levin]

Mozilla announced last week that its Firefox browser will begin using the DNS over HTTPS (DoH) protocol by default in late September. Google plans to begin testing DoH in an upcoming version of Google Chrome in October.

To provide some context, it’s important to note that there are multiple pathways through which internet traffic runs across the world that are supported by numerous back-up structures managed by ISPs and enterprise systems.

The strength of these networks and the internet as a whole has been in the decentralized system of global servers that manage the ever-growing amount of internet traffic. Multiple servers provide redundancy and eliminate single points of failure, and the decentralized process allows many users to use the internet infrastructure without having just a few companies own the routes for the internet’s traffic.

Companies that provide these underlying services are responsible for the transport layer that gives the internet its robust nature. They are the navigators of web traffic from consumers to endpoint providers. These networks mitigate cybersecurity risks for web traffic by deploying cybersecurity tools, detecting and mitigating malware and botnet attacks, and more. They also deploy site blockers mandated by the governments for schools and libraries, and parental controls on home networks.

DoH was designed to encrypt web-lookup traffic as part of a new privacy setting, and fundamentally changes how traffic moves on the web. Under DoH, the Chrome or Firefox browser will send all search traffic to a preferred DNS resolver by default, not by the user’s request. This enhances the browser’s knowledge of a user’s habits and interests. It will also obfuscate details about web traffic, breaking many of the Domain Name System (DNS) based controls around malware and monitoring which will no longer be visible or detectable to the network operator passing the traffic directly to Google (in the case of Chrome), or Cloudflare (in the case of FireFox).

The re-engineering by Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers is thus looking to change the architectural structure of how their users resolve internet queries making the browser the top of the pyramid, rather than the traditional endpoint. This means Google and Mozilla are working (again) on making network operators such as internet service providers (ISPs) “dumb” pipes whose job will be to transmit and receive encrypted information that only the Google browser, Chrome, or the Firefox browser served up by Cloudflare will be able to see.

As I explained in a previous blog, there are significant concerns around changing the way traffic flows from the current decentralized-by-design process, to a company-specific, centralized process that pushes consumers’ web queries directly to a specific search engine. By nature, browsers are designed to serve up ads to users, not monitor or filter traffic for security concerns.

This change to the usual path of internet traffic will enhance the browsers’ consumer data collection and create security concerns regarding the operation of the network. Google sees the change to its Chrome browser and Android mobile operating system as a method to centralize all traffic and have it flow to their network first. This ensures that it runs under Google’s control, moving from Google’s search engine to the next stop, the actual web address the user wants to go to.

The security concerns arise from the fact that DoH in its current design disables many cybersecurity tools on user devices. Due to the fact that web query traffic will go directly to the application layer of a specific browser through the chosen path of the browser company, not the choice of the enterprise IT system or ISP, the monitoring filters on ISPs or enterprise network servers will no longer see the DNS query traffic. DoH-enhanced encryption means only the browser sees the traffic, bypassing standard security management tools.

This plan has network operators concerned about what will be affected, modified, or broken once this change takes place. What are the trade-offs? What one group calls “surveillance” another calls ad traffic for revenue. DNS was designed to be a decentralized network for efficiency. Now its engineers are concerned about concentrating so much traffic through an edge provider’s browser.

Why does this matter?

The advent of internet governance was meant to ensure a multi-stakeholder audience of the technical community, businesses, law enforcement, and advocacy groups for end users was engaged in any discussion around a change of the network architecture, as well as changes in policies for the use of the internet.  It was always the expectation that the networks comprising the backbone infrastructure would be a significant part of these discussions to ensure operational integrity and security for all internet users.

Allowing a few companies to gain control over even more internet traffic by making a simple change in how users request and receive data could be a game-changer for the entire system. Paul Vixie, one of the original engineers of the Domain Name System, recently stated that “DoH is incompatible with the basic architecture of the DNS because it moves control plane (signaling) messages to the data plane (message forwarding), and that’s a no-no.”

Now is an excellent time to hit the pause button on the DoH proposal and let internet operators do what they do best. It would be better for all internet users to ensure no harm to the underlying network will be done before making a significant change to the architecture of the digital economy’s engine.

1 comment

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