browsers, security

HSTS Preload and Subdomains

In order to be eligible for the HSTS Preload list, your site must usually serve a Strict-Transport-Security header with a includeSubdomains directive.

Unfortunately, some sites do not follow the best practices recommended and instead just set a one-year preload header with includeSubdomains and then immediately request addition to the HSTS Preload list. The result is that any problems will likely be discovered too late to be rapidly fixed– removals from the preload list may take months.

The Mistakes

In running the HSTS preload list, we’ve seen two common mistakes for sites using includeSubdomains:

Mistake: Forgetting Intranet Hosts

Some sites are set up with a public site ( and an internal site only accessible inside the firewall ( When includeSubdomains is set, all sites underneath the specified domain must be accessible over HTTPS, including in this case Some corporations have different teams building internal and external applications, and must take care that the security directives applied to the registrable domain are compatible with all of the internal sites running beneath it in the DNS hierarchy. Following the best practices of staged rollout (with gradually escalating max-age directives) will help uncover problems before you brick your internal sites and applications.

Of course, you absolutely should be using HTTPS on all of your internal sites as well, but HTTPS deployments are typically smoother when they haven’t been forced by Priority-Zero downtime.

Mistake: Forgetting Delegated Hosts

Some popular sites and services use third party companies for advertising, analytics, and marketing purposes. To simplify deployments, they’ll delegate handling of a subdomain under their main domain to the vendor providing the service. For instance, will point to the company’s own servers, while the hostname will point to Experian or Marketo servers. A HSTS rule with includeSubdomains applied to will also apply to those delegated domains. If your service provider has not enabled HTTPS support on their servers, all requests to those domains will fail when upgraded to HTTPS. You may need to change service providers entirely in order to unbrick your marketing emails!

Of course, you absolutely should be using HTTPS on all of your third-party apps as well, but HTTPS deployments are typically smoother when they haven’t been forced by Priority-Zero downtime.


If you do find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having preloaded a TLD whose subdomains were not quite ready, you can apply for removal from the preload list, but, as noted previously, the removal can be expected to take a very long time to propagate. For cases where you only have a few domains out of compliance, you should be able to quickly move them to HTTPS. You might also consider putting a HTTPS front-end out in front of your server (e.g. Cloudflare’s free Flexible SSL option) to allow it to be accessed over HTTPS before the backend server is secured.

Deploy safely out there!



Bolstering HTTPS Security

When #MovingToHTTPS, the first step is to obtain the necessary certificates for your domains and enable HTTPS on your webserver. After your site is fully HTTPS, there are some other configuration changes you should consider to further enhance the site’s security.

Validate Basic Configuration

First, use SSLLab’s Server Test  to ensure that your existing HTTPS settings (cipher suites, etc) are configured well.


SECURE Cookies

After your site is fully secure, all of your cookies should be set with the SECURE attribute to prevent them from ever leaking over a non-secure channel. The (confusingly-named) HTTPOnly attribute should also be set on each cookie that doesn’t need to be accessible from JavaScript.

    Set-Cookie: SESSIONID=b12321ECLLDGH; secure; path=/

Strict Transport Security (HSTS)

Next, consider enabling HTTP Strict Transport Security. By sending a HSTS header from your HTTPS pages, you can ensure that all visitors navigate to your site via HTTPS, even if they accidentally type “http://” or follow an outdated, non-secure link.

HSTS also ensures that, if a network attacker were to try to intercept traffic to your HTTPS site using an invalid certificate, a non-savvy user can’t wreck their security by clicking through the browser’s certificate error page.

After you’ve tested out a short-lived HSTS declaration, validated that there are no problems, and ramped it up to a long-duration declaration (e.g. one year), you should consider requesting that browsers pre-load your declaration to prevent any “bootstrap” threats (whereby a user isn’t protected on their very first visit to your site).

    Strict-Transport-Security: max-age=631138519; includeSubDomains; preload

The includeSubdomains attribute indicates that all subdomains of the current page’s domain must also be secured with HTTPS. This is a powerful feature that helps protect cookies (which have weird scoping rules) but it is also probably the most common source of problems because site owners may “forget” about a legacy non-secure subdomain when they first enable this attribute.

Strict-Transport-Security is supported by most browsers.

Certificate Authority Authorization (CAA)

Certificate Authority Authorization (supported by LetsEncrypt) allows a domain owner to specify which Certificate Authorities should be allowed to issue certificates for the domain. All CAA-compliant certificate authorities should refuse to issue a certificate unless they are the CA of record for the target site. This helps reduce the threat of a bad guy tricking a Certificate Authority into issuing a phony certificate for your site.

The CAA rule is stored as a DNS resource record of type 257. You can view a domain’s CAA rule using a DNS lookup service. For instance, this record for means that only Symantec’s Certificate Authority may issue certificates for that host:


Configuration of CAA rules is pretty straightforward if you have control of your DNS records.

Public Key Pinning (HPKP)

Unfortunately, many CAs have made mistakes over the years (e.g. DigiNotar, India CCA, CNNIC CA, ANSSI CA) and the fact that browsers trust so many different certificate authorities presents a large attack surface.

To further reduce the attack surface from sloppy or compromised certificate authorities, you can enable Public Key Pinning. Like HSTS, HPKP rules are sent as HTTPS response headers and cached on the client. Each domain’s HPKP rule contains a list of Public Key hashes that must be found within the certificate chain presented by the server. If the server presents a certificate and none of the specified hashes are found in that certificate’s chain, the certificate is rejected and (typically) a failure report is sent to the owner for investigation.

Public Key Pinning powerful feature, and sites must adopt it carefully—if a site carelessly sends a long-life HPKP header, it could deny users access to the site for the duration of the HPKP rule.

    Public-Key-Pins: pin-sha256=”8Rw90Ej3Ttt8RRkrg+WYDS9n7IS03bk5bjP/UXPtaY8=”;
max-age=600; includeSubdomains;

Free services like can be used to collect HPKP violation reports.

HPKP is supported by some browsers.

Certificate Transparency

Certificate Transparency is a scheme where each CA must publicly record each certificate it has issued to a public, auditable log. This log can be monitored by site and brand owners for any unexpected certificates, helping expose fraud and phony domains that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Site owners who want a lightweight way to look for all CT-logged certificates for their domains can use the Certificate Transparency Lookup Tool. Expect that other tools will become available to allow site owners to subscribe to notifications about certificates of interest.

Since 2015, Chrome has required that all EV certificates issued be logged in CT logs. Future browsers will almost certainly offer a way for a site to indicate to visiting browsers that it should Expect or Require that the received certificate be found in CT logs, reporting or blocking the connection if it is not.


Thanks for your help in securing the web!