Google Chrome prompts BBC to enable HTTPS on all its sites by the end of 2016

The BBC is accelerating plans to enable HTTPS for all its websites in response to a change in Google’s Chrome browser that would kill key features on BBC sites that don’t support the secure web protocol.

If all goes to plan, BBC Online visitors will see a green padlock in their browser’s address bar by the of the year no matter which of its pages they visit. The padlock signifies HTTPS or the secure version of HTTP and means a connection to the BBC’s servers are encrypted and validated. HTTPS can thwart attacks that intercept communications between two systems, known as a man-in-the-middle attack.

“As BBC sites roll out support for HTTPS across the year, you will see the green padlock more and more as you browse BBC Online, even if you aren't signed in with BBC ID. Our aim is to make secure browsing the default experience for most of our audience by the end of 2016,” wrote Paul Tweedy, BBC Online’s lead technical architect, on Thursday.

Like many publishers, BBC has previously only enabled HTTPS for sites that handle personal data, such as its sign-in page, BBC iD, but not its main news and content sites. However, in mid-April it enabled HTTPS for the UK versions of the BBC home page, Travel News, and the mobile versions of its Weather sites, according to Tweedy.

Tweedy said that his department had long pushed for wider adoption of HTTPS within the BBC, but the reason BBC Online is accelerating its plans now was due to a change in Chrome linked to Google’s push for encryption everywhere, which will break location features in Chrome on BBC sites that haven’t enabled HTTPS.

The BBC’s shift to HTTPS demonstrates the sway Google has over the web, in part due to Chrome’s one billion users.

“Earlier in 2016, the Chromium development team decided to implement a change to Google Chrome, preventing access to certain in-browser features on ‘insecure’ (non-HTTPS) web pages. In practice, this meant that key features of certain products, such as the location-finding feature within the Homepage, Travel News and Weather sites, would stop working if we didn’t enable HTTPS for those services,” said Tweedy.

“Within our department, we had been preparing for this future for some time, lobbying technology providers to support current standards, updating TLS configurations and deprecating older versions. However, this brought the need to make HTTPS work for these products forward,” he added.

Google’s Chrome security team has proposed to only make “particularly powerful” features in the browser available to “secure origins”, such as HTTPS-enabled web servers. These features cover browser processes that handle user credentials, financial data, and access to a device’s sensors, such as GPS or microphone.

A major publisher moving entirely to HTTPS would be a significant milestone in the movement for encryption everywhere and would be a first for the publishing industry for an organisation on the scale of the BBC. While Google, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and many other tech companies have made their sites HTTPS by default, only a handful of media companies have done so due to several technical challenges.

The New York Times outlined some of these challenges when it, in 2014, announced it was embracing HTTPS and called on other news sites to make their sites “fully on HTTPS by the end of 2015”. Yet it still hasn’t achieved that for its site. Part of the problem for commercial publishers are ads that don’t support the secure protocol, the Internet Advertising Bureau pointed out last year when calling on more publishers to support secure connections.

BBC doesn’t deal with ads in implementing HTTPS, however Tweed listed a number of “real challenges” it faces, such as contractual issues with CDN providers, compute power to handle encryption, and legacy software.

“Enabling HTTPS via our CDN partners, to maintain functionality at times when we deliver BBC Online through a CDN, required a host of technical & contractual changes,” explained Tweed.

The BBC, as a public service broadcaster also needs to support all devices, from smart TVs to to phones through services such as iPlayer, but Tweed noted these “bring unique challenges for managing HTTPS configurations, and many don’t support HTTPS at all”.

Tweedy said that in coming months his department will be evaluating audio and video delivery via HTTPS, support for HTTP/2, and improved HTTPS performance for smartphones.