Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]

Written by - Nurten Dogan
Reviewed by - Deepak Prasad

Getting started with Wireshark to Decrypt SSL/TLS

In modern days, most of applications used in an organization are web based and in Client/Server architecture. A Client creates a request and sends it to  the server . In return, the server processes  the request and return an answer back. End users(clients) mostly use their browsers as  client application to interact with the server. Sometimes, we hear complaints from our clients(end users) about how slow the network or the server is. Network and system administrators first check the routine procedures.

For example checking client reachability by ping is one of the first thing to do. If we get a reply from the client, we measure  latency with ping round trip time, if everything is ok with reaching the client, we move to the next step which could be checking firewall rules for upper layer protocols for ssl/tls or other protocols. After following routine steps, if we can not fix the problem, we may need to  analyse the requests packet by packet.

Since security is a big concern for organizations, they add a security layer to their applications.  Analysing the requests packet by packet may not give us the desired result we want when packets are encrypted with SSL/TLS.


What is SSL/TLS?

SSL (Secure Socket Layer) and TLS (Transport Layer Security) are both  cryptographic protocols that provide authentication and data encryption between  clients and servers. TLS  is the successor protocol to SSL. In other saying, TLS is just an updated, more secure version of SSL. These days, since SSL is outdated, organizations extensively use TLS.

When a client connects to a server, it completes TCP 3 way handshaking. After that, TLS handshaking starts  in which client and server negotiate  what version of SSL/TLS will be used, which cipher suite will encrypt  communication and so on. During TLS handshaking both the client and the server derive session keys. The whole process is summarized in the figure below.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


Back in the old days, organizations used public/private(RSA) keys to   exchange  session keys. In this method, a sever simply sends it’s corticate and public key to  it’s client and  the client creates session keys and encrypt the keys with the server public key and sends encrypted keys back to  the server. In the end of the process, the client and the server  end up deriving the same keys and secure communication  starts. There is a serious security issues with this method. If an attacker obtains server private key, he/she can decrypt all the traffic. The worse is that  he/she can decrypt not only current traffic but also the traffic that will be created in the future as well.

This is a big concern to organizations. As  time passed, IT industry needed a better way that supports PFS(Perfect Forward Secrecy).  PFS is an encryption system that changes encryption and decryption keys frequently. It uses different keys for each connection even during the connection  encryption and decryption keys can be changed.  The keys generally stored in memory. After connection is tear down, the keys are deleted automatically. Diffie Hellman key exchange  is an alternative way to public/private(RSA) key exchange. Unlike public/private(RSA), Diffie Hellman key exchange  supports pfs.

Wireshark supports decryption of traffic, using session keys created by both Diffie Hellman and public/private(RSA) key exchange. In this article, my main focus will be to decrypt SSL/TLS protocols without diving too deep into details, which can be a topic for another article. We need SSL/TLS session keys for decryption but how do we obtain them?


What is NSS (Network Security Services)?

NSS is a collection of cryptographic libraries, which is design to support cross-platform development of security enabled client and server systems. Application that uses NSS can support SSL, TLS and some other security standards. Both Firefox and Chrome support NSS. When it comes to Internet Explorer, We can say Microsoft uses it’s own libraries which can be a topic of another article for us. Thanks to NSS, now we can capture session keys  for feeding Wireshark.

We will use firefox as the client and connect to a web server while we capture pcaps and keys that will feed wireshark. As a first step, we will make NSS log the session keys into a text file. Keys logging can be enabled by setting the environment variable SSLKEYLOGFILE to point to a file.


Step-1: Create SSLKEYLOGFILE Environment Variable

Let’s create SSLKEYLOGFILE environment variable that contains the path where keys are stored in Windows 10. The instructions are below.

Right click on “Computer” and select “Properties” from the menu.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


System” window will open then click on “Advanced system settings”.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


System Properties” window will pop up and  click on the bottom right button saying “Environment Variables…”.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


Another window will open, click “New” button which lets you add a new environment variable

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


After opening “New User Variable” window, we need to define our own environment variable. Type SSLKEYLOGFILE in the box named “Variable name:” then type your path or use “Browse File..” button to pick a file for “Variable value:”. I typed a path to a folder on my desktop.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


Once finishing up, We click “OK” button and now NSS will collect client and server handshake traffic secret keys in the file.

Before running Wireshark to collect packets, we need to verify that we log session keys. We open Firefox and type into address bar any domain that uses https. I will type www.golinuxcloud.com. Now it is time to check the log file. Below you see my session keys are collected.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]

From this point, we will work with wireshark, steps as below.


Step-2: Setting Wireshark to Decrypt SSL/TLS

Open Wireshark

We do not want to capture all packets coming ang going through our interface so we create a capture filter like below. I am going to use www.golinuxcloud.com domain name as seen in the figure below. You can use an IP address instead of a domain name as well. Then pick the interface from which you want to capture the traffic.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


Next, click Edit menu, then Preferences and Wireshark-Preferences window will pop up. On the left pane, you will see “Protocols”, click on it to expand the tree. Scroll down,  then click on TLS.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


From “(Pre)-Master-Secret log filename” , use Browse button or paste path of the log file and click OK to finish.

The last step is to visit a secure web site that uses https.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


Step-3: Analysing  Packets Before and After Decryption with Wireshark

Wireshark now have both session keys and packets to decrypt SSL/TLS. You can see undecrypted pcaps below before decryption. The first 3 packets are the 3 way handshake setting up the connection between the client and the server. The next 4 packets belong to TLS handshaking. Following, the actual application data (http get request) is sent in encrypted form.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]

The decrypted traffic is below. The first 7 packets are the same, but following packets are in green color and we can read the requests in clear text from “info” column.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]


To see more details, we can click on the row(packet) that contains http GET request. As seen below, Our request uses http version 2, GET method, showing the details of the domain we connected and much more about the request.

Wireshark: Decrypt SSL/TLS Practical Examples [Tutorial]



SSL and TLS  are both  cryptographic protocols that provide authentication and data encryption between  clients and servers. Sometimes we need requests to be in clear text format. Wireshark is a great tool to decrypt SSL/TLS to data in clear text form.


Further Reading

TLS - Wireshark Wiki


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Nurten Dogan

He is proficient in System Administration, Python, Computer Network, Network Engineering, PHP, Web Testing, Penetration Testing, Wireshark, RADIUS, Cisco Router, TCP/IP, Kali Linux, OSPF, NPS, and Multiprotocol BGP. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

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