SSL, a cryptographically secure protocol, was created by Netscape in the mid-1990’s. Today, SSL, and it’s replacement, TLS, are used by web browsers and other programs to create secure connections between devices across the Internet.
SSL provides the means to cryptographically secure a tunnel between endpoints, but there is another aspect of security that is missing. Trust. While a user may be confident that the data received from the other end of the SSL tunnel was sent by the remote system, the user can not be confident that the remote system is the system it claims to be. This problem was partially solved through the use of a Public Key Infrastructure, or PKI.
PKI, in a nutshell, provides the trust structure needed to make SSL secure. Certificates are issued by a certificate authority or CA. The CA cryptographically signs the certificate, enabling anyone to verify that the certificate was issued by the CA. Other PKI constructs offer validation of the registrant, indexing of the public keys, and a key revocation system. It is within these other constructs that the problems begin.
When SSL certificates were first offered for sale, the CAs spent a great deal of time and energy verifying the identity of the registrant. Often, paper copies of the proof had to be sent to the CA before a certificate would be issued. The process could take several days. More recently, the bar for entry has been lowered significantly. Certificates are now issued on an automated process requiring only that the registrant click on a link sent to one of the email addresses listed in the Whois information. This lack of thorough verification has significantly eroded the trust a user can place in the authenticity of a certificate.
CAs have responded to this problem by offering different levels of SSL certificates. Entry level certificates are verified automatically via the click of a link. Higher level SSL certificates have additional identity verification steps. And at the highest level, the Extended Validation, or EV certificate requires a thorough verification of the registrants identity. Often, these different levels of SSL certificates are marketed as stronger levels of encryption. The reality, however, is that the level of encryption for each of these certificates is exactly the same. The only difference is the amount of verification performed by the CA.
Despite the extra level of verification, these certificates are almost indistinguishable from one another. With the exception of EV certificates, the only noticeable difference between differing levels of SSL certificates are the identity details obtained before the certificate is issued. An EV certificate, on the other hand, can only be obtained from certain vendors, and shows up in a web browser with a special green overlay. The intent here seems to be that websites with EV certificates can be trusted more because the identity of the organization running the website was more thoroughly validated.
In the end, though, trust is the ultimate issue. Users have been trained to just trust a website with an SSL certificate. And trust sites with EV certificates even more. In fact, there have been a number of marketing campaigns targeted at convincing users that the “Green Address Bar” means that the website is completely trustworthy. And they’ve been pretty effective. But, as with most marketing, they didn’t quite tell the truth. sure, the EV certificate may mean that the site is more trustworthy, but it’s still possible that the certificate is fake.
There have been a number of well known CAs that have been compromised in recent years. Diginotar and Comodo being two of the more high profile ones. In both cases, it became possible for rogue certificates to be created for any website the attacker wanted to hijack. That certificate plus some creative DNS poisoning and the attacker suddenly looks like your bank, or google, or whatever site the attacker wants to be. And, they’ll have a nice shiny green EV certificate.
So how do we fix this? Well, one way would be to use the certificate revocation system that already exists within the PKI infrastructure. If a certificate is stolen, or a false certificate is created, the CA has the ability to put the signature for that certificate into the revocation system. When a user tries to load a site with a bad certificate, a warning is displayed telling the user that the certificate is not to be trusted.
Checking revocation of a certificate takes time, and what happens if the revocation server is down? Should the browser let the user go to the site anyway? Or should it block by default? The more secure option is to block, of course, but most users won’t understand what’s going on. So most browser manufacturers have either disabled revocation checking completely, or they default to allowing a user to access the site when the revocation site is slow or unavailable.
Without the ability to verify if a certificate is valid or not, there can be no real trust in the security of the connection, and that’s a problem. Perhaps one way to fix this problem is to disconnect the revocation process from the process of loading the webpage. If the revocation check happened in parallel to the page loading, it shouldn’t interfere with the speed of the page load. Additional controls can be put into place to prevent any data from being sent to the remote site without a warning until the revocation check completes. In this manner, the revocation check can take a few seconds to complete without impeding the use of the site. And after the first page load, the revocation information is cached anyway, so subsequent page loads are unaffected.
Another option, floated by the browser builders themselves, is to have the browser vendors host the revocation information. This information is then passed on to the browsers when they’re loaded. This way the revocation process can be handled outside of the CAs, handling situations such as those caused by a CA being compromised. Another idea would be to use short term certificates that expire quickly, dropping the need for revocation checks entirely.
It’s unclear as to what direction the market will move with this issue. It has been over two years since the attacks on Diginotar and Comodo and the immediacy of this problem seems to have passed. At the moment, the only real fix for this is user education. But with the marketing departments for SSL vendors working to convince users of the security of SSL, this seems unlikely.