TLS 1.3: Stronger, better, faster

The vast majority of all traffic on the Internet is encrypted. It took almost 20 years to get to about 40 percent encrypted, and then we jumped another 40 percent plus in just the last four years (source: Google Transparency Report).


Data center and public cloud traffic are a little harder to gauge, but they could be between 50% and completely encrypted. Across all theaters, we are undeniably on our way to 100% encryption.

While this trend has been growing, the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) released the latest version of TLS in August 2018. Here we are, a few years later, and encryption is widely supported and deployed. This new version introduces several changes with a goal to improve the overall security and provide privacy with the protocol. However, some of these changes have a negative impact on network-based security solutions. While you might view encryption as a feature, some real-life use cases are not solved easily without such network-based security solutions.

What is TLS?

Before diving into the specificities of TLS 1.3, here’s a brief overview of what TLS is and why it is so important in the world of network security. TLS stands for Transport Layer Security and is a standard protocol for allowing clients and servers to communicate securely over the Internet. It provides the security properties of confidentiality, authenticity, and integrity. Web browsers and web servers commonly use TLS to secure data sent over the Internet.

The ancestor of TLS is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol, which NetscapeĀ® introduced in 1994. SSL 2.0, the first publicly released version of the protocol, was quickly replaced by SSL 3.0 due to security flaws. Because the SSL protocol was proprietary to Netscape, the IETF formed an effort to standardize the protocol, resulting in TLS 1.0 (RFC 2246), which they published in January 1999. Since then, the IETF has updated the protocol to address security flaws and extend its capabilities, providing the following releases:

It is worth mentioning that many use the terms TLS and SSL interchangeably, even though they are completely different technologies.

Why do we need TLS 1.3?

To understand why the IETF and the security community have been working so hard to release a new version of TLS, let’s consider the issues that these protocols have had over the years:

  • SSL v3.0 had multiple vulnerabilities. It’s formally deprecated, so you should no longer use it (RFC 7568).

  • The TLS protocol has been subject to serious attacks over the last 20 years, including attacks on its most commonly used ciphers and modes of operation. RFC 7457 summarizes all of these attacks if you are interested.

  • TLS versions 1.0 and 1.1 are both quite old and are rapidly being phased out.

  • TLS version 1.2 is currently the best choice, but it is also fairly oldā€”about 12 years old. The consensus was that it needed to be updated with more modern cryptography advancements.

What are the key features of TLS 1.3?

TLS 1.3 is a major overhaul of the TLS protocol with two primary benefits: enhanced security and improved speed. Let’s take a look at each of those improvements in more detail.

Enhanced security

The protocol embraces the “less is safer” approach. It removes support for outdated cryptography, which improves the security and makes it less likely that someone can break a session because of an insecure cipher suite or some other form of weak cryptography.

The removed legacy and obsolete cryptography protocols include:

  • Static RSA and Diffie-Hellman key exchange
  • CBC mode ciphers
  • MD5 and SHA-1 hash functions
  • 3DES and RC4 ciphers
  • Arbitrary Diffie-Hellman groups

TLS 1.3 also removes unsafe built-in features such as compression and renegotiation, which were vulnerable to some attacks like Compression Ratio Info-leak Made Easy (CRIME) attacks. Check out the exhaustive list published in RFC 7457. In general, TLS 1.3 supports fewer modern cryptographic algorithms that are more efficient and more secure such as:

  • RSASSA - PSS signature algorithm
  • ChaCha 20 and Poly1305 stream ciphers
  • X25519 and X448 elliptic curve Diffie-Hellman key agreement mechanisms
  • Edwards curve digital signature algorithm

Improved speed

TLS 1.3 is also faster than previous versions of the TLS protocol. It has an entirely new handshake module, which requires fewer round trips (RTT). TLS 1.2 requires two round trips for a complete handshake. TLS 1.3 uses one round trip by default, and optionally, with pre-shared keys, can use zero round trips. It’s worth mentioning here that this 0-RTT mode came initially from the QUIC protocol.

What are the challenges encountered with TLS 1.3?

While encryption is great for privacy and security, it limits network visibility. The challenge is that these advanced features of the protocol make the enterprise security model much harder. Enterprises will likely need to replace the middleboxes in enterprises such as your firewall, Intrusion Prevention System (IPS), and Data loss prevention (DLP) to handle this new protocol.

Here are some examples that we think will have a negative impact on enterprise security:

  • Due to server certificate encryption during the handshake, you can’t whitelist sites anymore. Therefore, your network security appliance won’t be able to figure out whether you’re communicating with a legitimate website (your bank, for example), or a malicious site, without breaking the connection.

  • Due to perfect forward secrecy and the removal of static keys, these man (or monster) in the middle (MITM) middleboxes can’t use your internal server private key to break the client-server session or inspect the traffic later on.


No doubt, this latest version of TLS is way more secure than previous ones. It brings privacy to the heart of the protocol, making TLS implementation very difficult within enterprises.

Some market leaders, like CiscoĀ® and others, have already come up with new network security solutions that tackle these challenges with the help of artificial intelligence.

There is still a long road ahead, and the debate within the NetSec community has just started. The IETF is currently working on another internet draft document that addresses these issues and especially lists all the use case scenarios that TLS 1.3 impacts negatively.

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Mustapha Benmbarek

Mustapha works with startups and companies of any size to support their innovation. In his role as Solutions Architect at Rackspace, he leverages his experience to help people bring their ideas to life, providing guidance and technical assistance on cloud-based and AWS architectures.

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