From January, Google’s Chrome browser will start telling its one billion users that pages on an unencrypted HTTP connection are not secure.
The initial phase will begin with Chrome 56 (the current version is 53), which will display a “Not secure” marker before the URL in the browser bar if a login or payment page isn’t using an HTTPS connection. The first phase sets a fairly low bar since any page used to transmit credentials or credit cards should already be using an encrypted connection.
Still, as Google explained today, the new label marks a change from the current approach in Chrome where HTTP is treated neutrally, as opposed to the various coloured symbols it uses for HTTPS pages with errors related to the digital certificate.
The new “Not secure” label should serve three purposes: change user perceptions of what is secure; encourage website operators to enable HTTPS; and pressure other browsers, such as Safari, Edge and Firefox to adopt a similar approach.
“Chrome currently indicates HTTP connections with a neutral indicator. This doesn’t reflect the true lack of security for HTTP connections. When you load a website over HTTP, someone else on the network can look at or modify the site before it gets to you,” wrote Emily Schechter from the Chrome Security Team.
A recent study by Chrome's security team found that most people didn’t relate Chrome’s HTTP indicator to connection security. The authors said they wanted to teach people that HTTP is less secure than HTTPS. However, they were also searching for an indicator for HTTP that conveyed it was mildly insecure, but not as insecure as invalid HTTPS or a known malware page.
The phased roll out of new markings for HTTP broadly follows a proposal outlined in the study, which included introducing a green padlock next to “Secure” for valid HTTPS, “Not secure” in grey for HTTP, and a red triangle with “Not secure” for invalid HTTPS.
Eventually, though Google doesn’t say when, it will label all HTTP pages as “not secure” and adopt the additional red triangle for sites using broken HTTPS. However, first it will limit the “not secure” marking for HTTP pages when Chrome is in Incognito mode where users could expect additional privacy.
While many sites haven’t enabled HTTPS, more and more sites are doing so, partly in response to incentives from Google, such as it using HTTPS as a page ranking signal in search. Also, services like Let’s Encrypt now provide free digital certificates.
According to Google, today more than half of Chrome desktop page loads are served over HTTPS. Still, the HTTPS section of its Transparency Report covering the top 100 sites in the world, shows that dozens of major sites still haven’t enabled HTTPS.
Given Chrome now has one billion users, the new “not secure” labels may prompt these sites into action sooner rather than later.