Side-Channel Leaks in Web Applications: a Reality Today, a Challenge Tomorrow

  • Rui Wang
  • XiaoFeng Wang
  • Kehuan Zhang

Proceedings of the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy (Oakland) |

Published by IEEE Computer Society

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With software-as-a-service becoming mainstream, more and more applications are delivered to the client through the Web. Unlike a desktop application, a web application is split into browser-side and server-side components. A subset of the application’s internal information flows are inevitably exposed on the network. We show that despite encryption, such a side-channel information leak is a realistic and serious threat to user privacy. Specifically, we found that surprisingly detailed sensitive information is being leaked out from a number of high-profile, top-of-the-line web applications in healthcare, taxation, investment and web search: an eavesdropper can infer the illnesses/medications/surgeries of the user, her family income and investment secrets, despite HTTPS protection; a stranger on the street can glean enterprise employees’ web search queries, despite WPA/WPA2 Wi-Fi encryption. More importantly, the root causes of the problem are some fundamental characteristics of web applications: stateful communication, low entropy input for better interaction, and significant traffic distinctions. As a result, the scope of the problem seems industry-wide. We further present a concrete analysis to demonstrate the challenges of mitigating such a threat, which points to the necessity of a disciplined engineering practice for side-channel mitigations in future web application developments.