Since 2006, as part of our product, we are offering barcode scanners with GSM support to either send orders directly to the vendor or to transmit products into the web frontend where you can further edit them.

Even though the devices (Windows Mobile. Crappy. In progress of updating) do support WiFi, we really only support GSM because that means we don’t have to share the end users infrastructure.

This is a huge plus because it means that no matter how locked-down the customer’s infrastructure, no matter how crappy the proxy, no matter the IDS in use, we’ll always be able to communicate with our server.

Until, of course, the mobile carrier most used by our customers decides to add a “transparent” (do note the quotes) proxy to the mix.

We were quite stomped last week when we got reports of an HTTP error 408 to be reported by the mobile devices, especially because we were not seeing error 408 in our logs.

Worse, using tcpdump has clearly shown how we were getting a RST packet from the client, sometimes before sending data, sometimes while sending data.

Strange: Client is showing 408, server is seeing a RST from the client. Doesnt’ make sense.

Tethering my Mac using the iPhones personal hotspot feature and a SIM card of the mobile provider in question made it clear: No longer are we talking directly to our server. No. What the client receives is a 408 HTML formatted error message by a proxy server.

Do note the “DELETE THIS LINE” and “your organization here” comments. What a nice touch. Somebody was really spending alot of time getting this up and running.

Now granted, taking 20 seconds before being able to produce a response is a bit on the longer side, but unfortunately, some versions of the scanner software require gzip compression and gzip compression needs to know the full size of the body to compress, so we have to prepare the full response (40 megs uncompressed) before being able to send anything

  • that just takes a while.

But consider long-polling or server sent events - receiving a 408 after just 20 seconds? That’s annoying, wasting resources and probably not something you’re prepared for.

Worse, nobody was notified of this change. For 7 years, the clients were able to connect directly to our server. Then one day it changes and now they aren’t. No communication, no time to prepare and certainly too strict limits in order to not affect anything (not just us - see my remark about long polling).

The solution in the end is, like so often, to use SSL. SSL connections are opaque to any reverse proxy. A proxy can’t decrypt the data without the client noticing. An SSL connection can’t be inspected and an SSL connection can’t be messed with.

Sure enough: The exact same request that fails with that 408 over HTTP goes through nicely using HTTPS.

This trick works every time when somebody is messing with your connection. Something f’ing up your WebSocket connection? Use SSL! Something messing with your long-polling? Use SSL. Something decompressing your response but not stripping off the Content-Encoding header (yes. that happend to me once)? Use SSL. Something replacing arbitrary numbers in your response with asterisks (yepp. happened too)? You guessed it: Use SSL.

Of course, there are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Due to the lack of SNI in the world’s most used OS and Browser combination (any IE under Windows XP), every SSL site you host requires one dedicated IP address. Which is bad considering that we are running out of addresses.

  2. All of the bigger mobile carriers have their CA in the browsers trusted list. Aside of ethics, there is no reason what so ever for them to not start doing all the crap I described and just re-encrypting the connection, faking a certificate using their trusted ones.

  3. failing that, they still might just block SSL at some point, but as more and more sites are going SSL only (partially for above reasons no doubt), outright blocking SSL is going to be more and more unlikely to happen.

So. Yes. When in doubt: Use SSL. Not only does that help your users privacy, it also fixes a ton of technical issues created by practically non-authorized third-party messing with you.

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