SSL and the future of authenticity 2: certificate authorities

Second part of Moxie Marlinspike’s presentation dedicated to the authenticity component of a secure protocol and the general perceptions of SSL problems.

Secure connection intercepted by attacker

Secure connection intercepted by attacker

Authenticity is important of course, because normally, if you establish a secure session with a website, the problem is that if you don’t have authenticity, someone could have intercepted your connection to that website to establish a secure session with you – they make their own secure session with the website and just shuttle data back and forth, logging it in between (see image). But what’s easy to forget is that a man-in-the-middle attack was entirely theoretical in 1994 or 1995. The network tools didn’t exist, this wasn’t the kind of thing that was actively happening, this was thought of as an academic thing. You know, it’s like – oh well, there’s this other thing called the man-in-the-middle attack, and we need to design something theoretically to prevent against that.

A site that has a certificate is known to be authentic because it’s signed by a CA.

And so the designers came up with a solution that was certificates and certificate authorities, where every site has a certificate and it’s known to be authentic because it’s signed by a certificate authority which is just some organization that we’ve decided to trust. I have this hypothesis that we’ve outrun the circumstances in which SSL was originally imagined, and that it’s a different world today.

Kipp Hickman - the man who designed SSL protocol

Kipp Hickman - the man who designed SSL protocol

And then I thought – well, I wonder if that’s true, I wonder what they were actually thinking. And so I thought – well, I should talk to the people who designed SSL. I did some research and I figured out that SSL was originally designed by this guy Kipp Hickman who was a Netscape employee back in the day, and the last thing that Kipp Hickman posted to the Internet was in 1995. It was difficult to find him, you know, I talked to some people at Netscape who would point me in the right direction, and eventually I tracked him down, I basically just cold-called him. You know, I talked to him on the phone, and he’s a great guy. He was like “Oh, SSL! Yeah, I haven’t thought about that in a long time!” Yeah, okay, you know… I was like “So, certificate authorities was the deal”, and he said “Oh, that whole authenticity thing… We just threw that in at the end. We were designing SSL to prevent passive attacks1 for the most part, you know. We heard about this thing – the man-in-the-middle attack – and so we just threw that in at the end”. He’s like “Really, that whole thing with certificates, it was a bit of a hand wave. We didn’t think it was gonna work, we didn’t know”.

Domain names global count graph (1994-2012)

Domain names global count graph (1994-2012)

The idea back then – you could say it made sense. If you look at the number of domain names on the Internet back in 1994, when that number is approaching zero (see graph), you know, it made sense that, okay, maybe you have 10 sites that you could identify as secure sites, so you have one organization that just looks at those 10 sites really carefully and makes a decision and signs the certificates. But, you know, if you try and scale that up over time to today when there’s almost a billion domain names on the Internet – and ideally, we’d like all of them to be secure – it seems a little bit unrealistic to think we’re gonna have an organization or even a set of organizations that’s gonna look appropriately, closely at all of these domain names.

So I asked Kipp about how they saw the scaling over time. He’s like “Oh, the scaling – we didn’t really think about that, because you got to remember that at the time this was designed, Yahoo! was a web page with 30 links on it – that’s what Yahoo! was.” Yeah, that’s different.

And history has really born us out. I’ve been analyzing all the possible problems with SSL that have dropped up in the past. There have been some issues with secrecy and integrity, but this managed to sort of squeak by over time. There have also been some problems with user interaction – these are things like ‘SSLstrip’. But in terms of the protocol itself, the stuff about the authenticity piece has been where all the real problems are. And I think, you know, looking back at the Comodo thing, your lesson from these events shouldn’t be that this was cyber war, because I think, pretty clearly, it wasn’t.

Eddy Nigg got mozilla.com certificate with no validation

Eddy Nigg got mozilla.com certificate with no validation

But this is happening every day – that’s the real story. You know, one of these domains the attacker got – login.live.com – I mean, we should remember that Mike Zusman got this just by asking for it. He didn’t have to export functions from .dlls or whatever – he just sent in a request. Eddy Nigg got mozilla.com with no validation at all, he just asked for it. VeriSign issued a code signing certificate from Microsoft Corporation to attackers that are still unidentified, they were never discovered. I mean, this kinda thing happens all the time. Just recently, I needed to get an SSL certificate, so I went to this website SSL-In-A-Box.com – you know, straight to the bottom of the barrel. It’s one of the things where you have to create an account in order to submit anything. So I go to create an account, and when I click ‘Create’, it just logs me into someone else’s account. I didn’t even try to hack this, I just want a certificate. So, you know, I logged out and tried to create an account again, and it logged me into someone else’s account, and every time I did it, I just got a different account. And the thing is I didn’t even bother emailing them about it because I’m sure that they don’t even care.

GeoTrust provides the option of buying a certificate authority

GeoTrust provides the option of buying a certificate authority

One of the certificate authorities published the key to their certificate in the public directory of their web server. And the thing is you might be able to understand how it’s possible that someone could have made this mistake, but it’s still there! It’s not like “Oh, crap!” – it’s since 2009 that the key to the certificate has been available to the public.

You don’t even have to hack anybody. If you got the money, you can just buy a certificate authority. You can get a CAcert from GeoTrust2 – I think it’s 50 grand (see image). Anybody have 50 grand to spend? You’re on CAcert, intercepting all the communication on the Internet. I really like their iconography in the top-right corner, because it really is just like “We’re giving you the key to the world”. They’re not hiding anything.

Map of countries with CA’s, according to ‘SSL Observatory’ data

Map of countries with CA’s, according to ‘SSL Observatory’ data

And what if this were a state-sponsored hack – this whole Comodo thing? I think it’s worth realizing that the only reason that Iran would have to hack a certificate authority in order to issue certificates is because they don’t have a certificate authority of their own. But many other countries do. The EFF3 put together an excellent project called the ‘SSL Observatory’, where they scan the Internet, and they put together a map of all the countries in the world that are currently capable of issuing certificates and thus intercepting secure communication – and it looks like this (see image). I mean, I don’t know if you can see, but way out in the middle of the Atlantic, there’s a little red speck – that’s Bermuda. Bermuda can issue certificates. The good news is that the vibe around this sort of thing seems to be shifting: from the old vibe of the total ripoff, which I think was the general perception of certificate authorities, to the new vibe of total ripoff and mostly worthless. There’s been a lot of talk about moving forward and replacing certificate authorities with something else, but I think that if we’re gonna do that it makes sense to really accurately identify the problem and figure out what it is that we’re trying to solve so that we don’t end up in the same situation again.

650 different organizations worldwide are currently capable of intercepting communication.

Now, there’ve been a few sort of general perceptions of what the problem might be. The first is people look at the EFF ‘SSL Observatory’ data, so the EFF scan the Internet and they put together a graph of all of the organizations in the world that are currently capable of signing certificates, and it’s a lot of organizations – in fact, it’s 650 different organizations that are currently capable of intercepting communication. And so, I think one simplistic reaction to this is just to say, well, the problem is there’s too many certificate authorities, there’s just too many of them, what we need is fewer certificate authorities. But I feel like this might be a little simplistic. Remember when there was only one (VeriSign), and they could charge as much and do really whatever they wanted? And part of the problem here is really a scaling issue where we’ve gone from maybe 20 secure sites to 2 million secure sites, and ideally we’d like a billion secure sites. You know, it seems like less is not really the answer.

Another kind of general perception is that there’s just a few bad apples, that most of the certificate authorities are cool, and there’s just a few certificate authorities that have given the whole thing a bad rap for everybody else. But I don’t know if this is true, I think that if you look closely, there’s really nobody here that does not have dirt on their hands, even VeriSign – back when they were the only game in town. At the same time that they had a business issuing certificates and securing communication, they had another section of their business where they were managing so-called ‘lawful intercept services’ for governments. So, the same organization that we had entrusted to secure our communication was also simultaneously making money by intercepting secure communication.

General perceptions of SSL problems:

– Too many CA’s

– A few ‘bad apples’

– Scoping issue

Another idea is that it’s a scoping issue, that the problem is that the authorities are all in the same scope. For instance, the two authorities who can sign certificates and thus intercept secure communication on the Internet today are the Department of Homeland Security and the state of China. Well, the problem is that the DHS can sign Chinese sites and China can sign U.S. sites, and if you just separated the scope so that China could only sign sites in China and the Department of Homeland Security could only sign sites in the United States, everything would be cool. I feel like it’s kind of a low bar. I think there’re plenty of people in China that probably don’t trust the state of China to certify sites even within their country, and likewise I feel there’re plenty people in the United States who don’t trust the Department of Homeland Security to be certifying their communication either.

So what is the answer to this question? What is the problem?

Read previous: SSL and the future of authenticity: Comodo hack and secure protocol components
Read next: SSL and the future of authenticity 3: Trust agility concept

1Passive attack on a cryptosystem is one in which the cryptanalyst cannot interact with any of the parties involved, attempting to break the system solely based upon observed data (i.e. the ciphertext).

2GeoTrust is the world’s second largest digital certificate provider, with more than 100,000 customers in over 150 countries.

3EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) is an international non-profit digital rights advocacy and legal organization based in the United States.

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