Theses Doctoral

Reducing Third Parties in the Network through Client-Side Intelligence

Kontaxis, Georgios

The end-to-end argument describes the communication between a client and server using functionality that is located at the end points of a distributed system. From a security and privacy perspective, clients only need to trust the server they are trying to reach instead of intermediate system nodes and other third-party entities. Clients accessing the Internet today and more specifically the World Wide Web have to interact with a plethora of network entities for name resolution, traffic routing and content delivery. While individual communications with those entities may some times be end to end, from the user's perspective they are intermediaries the user has to trust in order to access the website behind a domain name. This complex interaction lacks transparency and control and expands the attack surface beyond the server clients are trying to reach directly. In this dissertation, we develop a set of novel design principles and architectures to reduce the number of third-party services and networks a client's traffic is exposed to when browsing the web. Our proposals bring additional intelligence to the client and can be adopted without changes to the third parties.
Websites can include content, such as images and iframes, located on third-party servers. Browsers loading an HTML page will contact these additional servers to satisfy external content dependencies. Such interaction has privacy implications because it includes context related to the user's browsing history. For example, the widespread adoption of "social plugins" enables the respective social networking services to track a growing part of its members' online activity. These plugins are commonly implemented as HTML iframes originating from the domain of the respective social network. They are embedded in sites users might visit, for instance to read the news or do shopping. Facebook's Like button is an example of a social plugin. While one could prevent the browser from connecting to third-party servers, it would break existing functionality and thus be unlikely to be widely adopted. We propose a novel design for privacy-preserving social plugins that decouples the retrieval of user-specific content from the loading of third-party content. Our approach can be adopted by web browsers without the need for server-side changes. Our design has the benefit of avoiding the transmission of user-identifying information to the third-party server while preserving the original functionality of the plugins.
In addition, we propose an architecture which reduces the networks involved when routing traffic to a website. Users then have to trust fewer organizations with their traffic. Such trust is necessary today because for example we observe that only 30% of popular web servers offer HTTPS. At the same time there is evidence that network adversaries carry out active and passive attacks against users. We argue that if end-to-end security with a server is not available the next best thing is a secure link to a network that is close to the server and will act as a gateway. Our approach identifies network vantage points in the cloud, enables a client to establish secure tunnels to them and intelligently routes traffic based on its destination. The proliferation of infrastructure-as-a-service platforms makes it practical for users to benefit from the cloud. We determine that our architecture is practical because our proposed use of the cloud aligns with existing ways end-user devices leverage it today. Users control both endpoints of the tunnel and do not depend on the cooperation of individual websites. We are thus able to eliminate third-party networks for 20% of popular web servers, reduce network paths to 1 hop for an additional 20% and shorten the rest.
We hypothesize that user privacy on the web can be improved in terms of transparency and control by reducing the systems and services that are indirectly and automatically involved. We also hypothesize that such reduction can be achieved unilaterally through client-side initiatives and without affecting the operation of individual websites.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Computer Science
Thesis Advisors
Keromytis, Angelos D.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 19, 2018