Why is FTP insecure? Five Reasons to Ditch FTP and Move On to Better Alternatives
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is not secure. Protect your data with strong encryption protocols. Use better file transfer protocols like SFTP and FTPS instead.
FTP stands for 'File Transfer Protocol.' In a programmer's world, FTP is the solution of sharing data with a large number of users over a computer network. It falls in the category of 'communication protocols'. Communication protocols make up the platform on which computers can share files available to a select group of users.
Web designers and programmers use FTP for similar applications which differ in scale. This method includes things like handling the constant flow of files behind programs of complex websites etc. If you're new to Web Developing, let us explain like you're five years old.
Suppose you want to share a VLC media file with your friends over the internet. Say that you're a textbook extrovert and you have over a hundred friends. You can either email them the video file separately, or they can show up at your house and copy it via a USB cable, right? There's a third option called File Transfer Protocols to avoid such inconveniences.
FTP allows users to establish a virtual 'hub' of data over a computer network. This 'hub' can then be visited by other users or 'clients.' The clients can then view and download files uploaded on the 'FTP server' or 'hub.' Learn more about FTP here.
Before we shoot down FTP, we admit it has been a tool of great convenience. It allows files of substantial sizes to be transferred over an online network. FTP also allows you to schedule a file transfer ahead of time and share entire directories. It's remarkable how FTP manages heavy data flow. This saves time and makes data sharing less mundane.
While FTP does a great job of being efficient and recovering lost data, it does little to protect it. Read here about how FTP was never meant to be a secure protocol. Thus, despite its wide usage, it does not suffice in terms of security.
Over time, FTP has been refined before becoming mainstream. FTP was written back in 1971. So, it was operational before Operating systems like Windows even existed. In simple terms, FTP is a pretty old protocol.
Indeed, FTP is the standard communication protocol for many computer networks. Yet, it has an alarming number and nature of drawbacks that make it obsolete. If that doesn't sound like a good enough reason to move on, allow us our arguments. We'll also suggest two alternatives that have an undeniable superiority over FTP.
Why FTP isn't a safe option anymore and five reasons to ditch it and move on
1. FTP Is Not Secure
FTP is not a secure way of sharing data right off the bat. This is because FTP allows the data to be shared in clear text between computers. Clear-text means that the data being transferred is not encrypted. Simply put, FTP transmits your files and credentials without any layer of security around them. These credentials include your username, passwords, and IPs. This puts you at risk of data leaks, leading to further problems. If you use FTP, you can be attacked using only basic cyber-attack methods. These include sniffing, spoofing and brute force attacks to name a few. If you don't believe us, google 'how to hack FTP' and let the abundance of tutorials astound you.
2. Too Many Ports Destroy The Protocol
If the lack of encryption wasn't enough to change your mind, let the problems of 'ports' persuade you! As FTP isn't a secure protocol, it can act up when connecting through a network using firewalls. Usually, FTPs use Port 21 to transfer files. But, around firewalls, FTPs may open many ports to share files. This further exposes them to cyber-attacks and accentuates the security problem.
3. The Vendor Problem
Are you part of a small start-up or local company? Most businesses like yours do not solve their FTP problems themselves. Instead, they outsource their FTP servers to individuals and firms that have expertise in this domain. These managers or FTP hosts resolve FTP problems and even manage the security of the server.
The 'package' FTP you get is subject to bargaining. Thus, as you choose better security options e.g Data Loss Prevention Solutions or DLPS, the prices increase. Click here to learn more about choosing the right FTP hosting service. Thus, the strength of data security relies on the competence of your vendor. And competence can be challenging to assess, especially on a budget!
4. Inadequate Accessibility Settings
Let's say you've created an FTP server for your company. If the company files do not contain sensitive data, you're not bothered about the risk of a cyber-attack. Regardless, if you do get hacked, you must want to know how it happened to prevent a recurrence. Usually, owing to poor data hygiene, your data is likely being mishandled from within. This can be analogous to a small 'puncture'. However, FTP does not have adequate accessibility settings which would otherwise allow you to locate the puncture.
This means you can neither locate the source of attacks nor control the damage from within. You can't tell who or where the problem is and it becomes a recurrent and resistant infection that won't go away. Unless, you either change your hosting services or your transfer protocols.
5. Compliance Fines Can Be Bad For Your PR
Suppose you're a part of a company that deals with the government or other serious clients. Chances are, your clients value commercial-grade cyber-security. To ensure that your file-sharing protocols are sturdy enough, scrutiny tests called ‘network compliance requirements’ are in place.
These include HIPAA, GDPR, PCI-DSS, GLBA, SOX, ITAR, DFARS, FedRAMP Moderate, and DoD IL2. You may be fined if your FTPs don't stand these compliance requirements. These fines might or might not hurt you financially depending on how big you are. Nevertheless, they will hurt you in the market for sure.
Secure Alternatives to FTP
Now that you might be somewhat shaken about your current or planned use of FTPs, be not afraid, for we're still here! Here are a few alternatives to FTP that almost wholly, if not completely, cover all the bases.
The biggest issue with FTP was its overall lack of security; SFTP or SSH-FTP covers that base pretty well. Often incorrectly abbreviated as Secure-FTP, SFTP is a go-to replacement for FTP unsatisfied users.
Contrary to FTP which shares files and credentials in clear-text, SFTP encrypts it all. This means that even if there was a leak in an unsecured network, the leaked data would be encryption-protected.
The cherry on the top with SFTP is its Bi-Directional Authentication. Bi-directional authentication asks both the client and users to authenticate their identities via another password. Learn how to enable this feature using Google Authenticator here. This virtually guarantees safety from spoofing attacks where a hacker takes on your identity to steal your data.
If FTP, SFTP, and FTPS fight head-on, FTPS is warranted to come out victorious. This communication protocol differs from SFTP on a technicality.
Both protocols further use network security protocols to ensure a safe connection between client and user computers. While SFTP uses SSH, FTPS employs SSL. SSH is applied to transfer data and issue commands from another computer. In contrast, SSL is only used to establish a closed, secure connection.
Simply put, using SSL, FTPS does not allow a user to issue commands on a remotely connected PC. On the other hand, SSH-using SFTP does. Thus, FTPS servers do not allow data to be manipulated remotely. SSL is thus considered a bonus feature and a winning factor for FTPS.
To wrap up, FTP is a de-facto method of sharing files over a network. While it has many obvious advantages, some significant drawbacks persist. These drawbacks largely concern security, data safety, and privacy. In the age of IT, a lack of digital immunity makes FTP obsolete. Alternatively, better communication protocols like SFTP and FTPS are improved versions of FTP. If you've skimmed the article, this is what we conclude (especially in terms of security):
FTPS > SFTP > FTP