The Certificate Authority Racket

A mafia shakedown, coming to a website near you

With Google’s move to begin interpreting SSL encryption as a factor that goes into determining a site’s rank, no doubt the webmasters of the world are beating a path to the doors of the Certificate Authorities which provide the sought-after bits of code that enable your browser to connect to a  site without being snooped on by others, whether those be kiddies on the coffee shop wi-fi, or the kiddies who happen to work for the federal government.

Sounds like a good thing, right? There’s just one problem: The entire infrastructure is rotten to its core!

SSL PKI: A primer

The general principle is like so: You want to connect to a website securely, so the website presents a certificate containing its host name and some other cryptographic information.

Your browser reads the certificate, does a handshake with the server, and voila: the connection is encrypted.

So far, so good. There’s still a weakness we have to deal with though: What stops a malicious person from sitting between you and the server, presenting a certificate saying they actually are the people you’re connecting to, and forwarding on your traffic to the other side without you knowing? This is what’s known as a man in the middle attack.

The answer is ”Not much”; this is why we have the concept of Certificate Authorities (or CA’s’) basically a “trusted” (more on those scare quotes in a moment) third-party that checks to see if the guy you’re connecting to really is who he says is, and “signs” the certificate.

This signature is ostensibly hard to get for a scammer. That way, if you connect to a website, and the certificate you get isn’t signed by a “trusted” third-party, your browser throws up all kinds of scary warnings saying “Hey, wait a sec, this certificate isn’t signed, it could be from literally anyone!”

That is the theory, and on paper, it’s good. In reality, there are a number of huge problems with this setup.

Getting Certified to Certify

Becoming a certificate authority, an organization that can sign certificates, is a process that involves some technical chops and a ton of money. The technical chops, to set up the (fairly complicated) signing mechanism in a technically and physically secure way, and the ton of money to pass the audit to receive a certification.

With the audit certification in hand, you can apply to the various browser and operating system vendors to include your CA - meaning that the OS or browser will trust anything you sign implicitly. (The browser makers won’t even give you the time of day without this certification.)

And here we run into another problem:

Trusting the trusted third party

There are literally a few hundred CAs that your browser trusts.

Example: Here’s a list of what Mozilla packages with Firefox. Do you know these companies? The ones in Japan? Israel? India? They’re all over the world. Do you know them? What knowledge do you have of how they became CAs? What about their practices? In short, there are more certificate authorities than you have the ability and time to personally vet.

CAs include those in governments with less than stellar records when it comes to privacy and coercion. For instance, you can live in any country in the world, and if the United States were to coerce a CA to make a certificate for, say, Facebook.com, the US government now has the ability to snoop on the traffic of anybody that trusts that CA’s certificates, regardless of their location, which almost certainly includes you personally.

“But wait!” “I hear you say. Isn’t the very expensive audit supposed to serve as a marker that this CA has been vetted?”

Outsourcing trust is a horrible idea

This supposedly through and comprehensive audit doesn’t stop CAs from being broken into and bad certificates issued. Entire CA companies, such as DigiNotar, have been broken into and hackers have issued their own certificates for very popular websites. The exact thing the audit is supposed to make impossible!

Indeed, all the audit does is prove that:

  1. A company has a great deal of money to burn (tens of thousands of dollars)

  2. The arbitrary requirements of the audit process were met when the audit was performed

I liken this to what happens when the city health inspector comes to visit the local greasy spoon. Everyone goes on a cleaning spree, tidying up, killing the rodents, throwing all the rotten food away, and washing their hands.

The audit is not an ongoing process, (save for an occasional re-certification) and once the health insp- sorry, auditors have left, the CA has no reason to continue abiding by those standards.

Now, in theory, a CA that’s been hacked badly enough will become untrusted by the browsers and the operating systems, by way of removing their certificate from the trusted list, but in practice, this is almost never done.

Also, an audit only superficially covers negligence, but not coercion. All of the $30K+ audits in the world don’t stop the local goons from knocking on your door, quasi-legal letter in hand, and demanding you sign a google.com certificate for them.

Speaking of goons:

The relationship between a certificate authority and their customers is like

a mob protection racket

Let’s say you own a business. You want to sell things. Everyone and their dog has it drilled into their head to look for a lock (and more recently a green bar) in the address bar before turning over any personal info.

So you go to a random security company and get your certificate. If you get the green bar one, this costs you roughly 300 a year and some time doing paperwork.

So, a year passes. This certificate for some ungodly reason “expires”. This means you get to pay your maf- I mean company, the same $300 again just to get the exact same certificate you already have, just with an updated date field. There is literally no other difference.

You’ll get emails from your company around expiration time, each more urgent-sounding than the last.

The tone is invariably: “That’s an awful nice website you have there, would be shame if SOMETHING WERE TO HAPPEN TO IT”.

If you say “to hell with this” and allow the cert to expire?

You get scary warnings like this

You get scary warnings like this

It’s not like the connection is unencrypted or your identity changed, nope, just this arbitrary number is date + 1 day.

Why is this necessary? It isn’t. Pure and simple. You don’t use new keys when you renew a certificate, so there is no technical or practical reason for this expiration date, other than to line the pockets of the CAs.

Even the free certificate authorities are horrible

The go-to free CA as of writing this is Startcom. I’d link them here, but I refuse to send them traffic. They will provide basic SSL certificates for single websites, for free.

Sounds good, right? What’s a mob protection racket if they don’t get money? Well, there’s a catch. Many catches, actually.

First of all, the UI on this site is horrible and confusing.

Secondly, and more importantly, you are charged money for the privilege of revoking a certificate. Let’s say you mistype the URL when you’re setting up your certificate. You now have a certificate you can’t use (since if the domain name on the certificate doesn’t match the site that’s showing it: scary browser warning time), and these wonderful people at Startcom charge you $25 for the purpose of killing off the old certificate.

This fee applies even if you’re not trying to delete a certificate because your own error. Remember Heartbleed? The bug that necessitated a lot of people get new certificates since the private keys were compromised? Yup - $25 per certificate.

Startcom to their customers: “Fuck you, pay me.”

You are charged a lot for what you get

The best certificate authorities s that are not run by complete jerks appear to be resellers of the jerks. For instances, Gandi is a reseller. The least amount you can expect to pay for a certificate to pass all of these checks and not get a scary warning on a single domain name is about $10.

Note that this is for the top-level name only. If you want to encrypt “yoursite.com”, you have to buy another certificate to protect “subdomain.yoursite.com”, and so on for every other domain you own.

There is a way around this, called “wildcard certificates”, which is simply a certificate issued to *.yoursite.com. The catch is that these certificates are absurdly expensive”. The cheapest I’ve ever seen a wildcard certificate go for is roughly $130 per year. There is literally no difference between a wildcard certificate and a single domain certificate, beyond the name getting a *. in the front.

Speaking of differences, the other thing to remember is that certificates are fungible. There is no difference between each company’s certificates, save for the name of the company doing the signing!

This means that the $200 certificate from VeriSign is functionally identical and provides the same security as the $9 certificate from Gandi.

There has to be a better way!

So what are we to do? Self signed certificates are insecure because they can be created by anyone for any domain - but the solution we’ve settled on frankly, sucks.

The certificate authority system lets exploitative companies have way, way too much power. In the post Snowden era, centralization combined with this amount of power is unacceptable.

A number of solutions have been proposed.

One method is allowing self signed certificates, but having a distributed network check the information on those certificates. Let’s say you self sign your certificate, and then the first time someone hits your website, the connection goes through without warnings (after all, the chances that someone is doing a man-in-the-middle attack on you right now is quite low), and the details of the certificate you hit get sent out into a peer-to-peer network.

Then, every time someone else hits the same site, they check the certificate they got against the network. If it’s the same, the certificate already out there gets a little bit higher of a score. If they’re different, your browser knows something is up, and stops you, asking for instructions. This allows you to make an informed decision on what you want to connect to, without giving rotten companies money. Decentralization is the future.

You are used to be stuck

Boycotting the entire certificate authority system is untenable right now. You can’t refuse to do business with them, because they still have all the power. You must do business with them or else your website visitors (possibly customers!) get warnings in their browser designed to scare them away. My suggestion? Get the cheapest certificates you can find (remember, the $200 certificate does nothing that the $9 certificate doesn’t), and do your research on the company that issues them. This way, you have some level of knowledge as to what you’re pushing out there, and you contribute as little as possible to this rotten game. Keep an eye out - smart people are working on solutions to this problem.

Update

Since this article was posted, a new CA started, headed up by the likes of Mozilla. It’s called Let’s Encrypt, it’s fully automated, and charges nothing for certificates and revocation. Now, they don’t provide wildcard certs, but since the issuance process is automated and scriptable, this isn’t really a huge problem.

I highly recommend you check them out, and flip the likes of VeriSign and StartCom the bird they so richly deserve.

 
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