Websites are vulnerable to various cyber-attacks and malware that can wreak havoc on businesses and individuals.
Website Security Headers provide an additional layer of protection for websites, ensuring visitors to your site have a safe experience.
This article will explain what Website Security Headers are, how they work and why they are so important for online security.
We’ll also discuss the different types of headers available and how you can implement them on your website.
What are Website Security Headers?
Website security headers are defined as directives that help protect websites from malicious attacks.
They can control how browsers interact with a website and help keep sensitive data secure.
And often contain information related to HTTP authentication, content security policies, and other settings that affect how a browser interacts with a website.
For instance, the HTTP Strict-Transport-Security header sets an expiration date for secure connections between your web server and the visitor’s browser.
This helps prevent man-in-the-middle attacks by forcing all communication over HTTPS instead of unencrypted HTTP.
Similarly, Content Security Policy (CSP) is a set of rules the browser enforces that let you specify which resources are allowed or disallowed on your website.
Types of Security Headers
a. HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS)
HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) is a website security header that enables websites to communicate with web browsers so that secure communication is always used.
It works by informing the browser not to attempt to connect over insecure HTTP, but instead use HTTPS.
This is helpful in preventing man-in-the-middle attacks and other vulnerabilities as it ensures data will only be sent securely over a TLS connection.
HSTS includes two primary components: a policy and an enforcement mechanism.
The policy defines which domains are HSTS enabled and for how long, allowing the browser to remember this for future connections.
And the enforcement mechanism ensures HTTPS requests are made and no insecure requests are allowed by browsers until the specified period has passed or been updated.
b. Content Security Policy (CSP)
Content Security Policy (CSP) is a security header that helps protect websites from malicious attacks.
It works by providing a list of trusted sources, such as domains and scripts, for the browser to use when loading resources on a website.
This helps protect against cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks, drive-by downloads, and data injection.
And can help prevent content from being loaded in an iframe without permission.
CSP also gives developers more control over how browsers interact with their websites by allowing them to specify certain directives that govern what types of requests are allowed and which should be blocked.
The X-Frame-Options header, commonly referred to as XFO, is an important website security measure that prevents clickjacking attacks.
Clickjacking happens when a malicious website tricks users into clicking on invisible buttons or links while visiting another site.
This can lead to serious security issues such as malware downloads or data theft.
To prevent this type of attack, the X-Frame-Options header must be included in the HTTP response headers of web pages.
It instructs browsers not to display content in frames unless explicitly allowed by the server’s settings.
When enabled, it will only allow content from sites within the same origin (domain) to be displayed in frames, ensuring that malicious websites cannot inject their own code into a page via an iframe and take control over any user action on the page.
X-XSS-Protection is a website security header that helps protect websites from cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks.
It works by detecting malicious code within a web page and preventing it from executing.
The header can be enabled in most modern browsers, including Firefox and Chrome.
When enabled, the header will send a “X-XSS-Protection” HTTP response header to the browser when requested.
This response instructs the browser to enable its built-in XSS protection mechanism, which blocks any potential malicious code from being executed on the page.
With X-XSS-Protection in place, websites are better protected against cross site scripting attacks.
However, the effectiveness of this security measure depends on how well configured it is for each specific website and its hosting environment.
Referrer-Policy is a website security header that helps to control the information included in a HTTP request when transitioning from one page to another, also known as the “referer” header.
With this policy, websites can choose to disclose or withhold the referring URL when users navigate away from their site.
This is important for site privacy, since revealing which sites are being visited can be seen as a breach of user privacy.
Eight directives can be sent using the Referrer-Policy header:
- Referrer-Policy: no-referrer.
- Referrer-Policy: no-referrer-when-downgrade.
- Referrer-Policy: origin.
- Referrer-Policy: origin-when-cross-origin.
- Referrer-Policy: same-origin.
- Referrer-Policy: strict-origin.
- Referrer-Policy: strict-origin-when-cross-origin.
- Referrer-Policy: unsafe-url.
In addition, Referrer-Policy also serves an important role in protecting against cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks and other malicious activities.
Controlling how much information is sent along with a request makes it more difficult for attackers to gain access to sensitive information on the target website.
Furthermore, some policies also limit referrers from outside domains only allowing pages within their own domain to be referred and blocking any external requests.
Benefits of Security Headers
a. Improved Security for Websites
Website security headers are an important tool for website owners to consider adding to their site in order to improve overall security.
These headers can help protect users from malicious attacks, such as Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) and click-jacking.
Security headers provide additional layers of protection by restricting how a user’s browser interacts with a website and its content.
The most common type of security header is the Content-Security Policy (CSP) which allows webmasters to whitelist trusted sources for content on their websites.
This helps prevent attackers from injecting malicious code into a website through third-party resources, such as scripts and plug-ins, which are often targeted for attack.
Other types of security headers include X-Frame Options and X-Content Type Options that aim to protect against clickjacking attacks and the execution of malicious file types, respectively.
b. Better User Experience
Implementing security headers can help protect your users from potential malicious attacks, such as cross-site scripting (XSS) or clickjacking.
These headers can also be used to enforce strict policies on content delivery networks (CDNs) and other third-party services that have access to the website.
This helps ensure that only authorized services are able to access sensitive data or resources.
In addition to protecting users from malicious threats, security headers can also improve the overall user experience of a website by setting appropriate cache control directives and enabling features such as HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS).
c. Increased Website Visibility
Website security headers are an important component of website security but are not the only one.
Improved visibility of a website is also critical for protecting against malicious attacks and ensuring that the site is secure.
This can be achieved in a number of ways, such as optimizing titles, descriptions, and images for search engine rankings and implementing search engine optimization (SEO) techniques like link building.
d. Improved SEO
A few ways website security headers can improve SEO include blocking malicious scripts from crawling through your page, preventing content from being indexed by search engine bots, and ensuring that all resources used by the page are secure.
By implementing these measures, you’ll be able to ensure that only quality content is seen by search engine crawlers, making it more likely for them to rank it higher in search results.
How to Implement Security Headers
Security headers can be set with an .htaccess file, avoiding the need to download a plugin.
This is beneficial as some plugins may have code which poses a security risk, so limiting the amount of installed plugins can be beneficial.
NOTE: Each website has its own unique requirements for the Content-Security-Policy (CSP), so implementation of security headers should be tailored accordingly.
Alternatively, use a plugin.
Many websites already have installed plugins that provide the option to set security headers.
These popular plugins offer a convenient alternative to manually configuring .htaccess files.
- Really Simple SSL Pro: More than five million websites have already installed Really Simple SSL, and the reasonably priced Pro version can help you easily set up to eight security headers.
- Redirection: For over a decade, the 100% free WordPress Redirection plugin has been a staple on over 2 million websites. It provides a wide selection of preset security headers and features the top five directives highlighted in this article. Preset options give you the ability to quickly and easily select from standard directives.