The dirty little secret about SSL certificates is that:

Anyone can become a certificate authority.

The tools to become a certificate authority, and therefore to publish your own SSL certificates, is included in a wide variety of systems – chances are if you have an Ubuntu or CentOS install you already have the capability of becoming an SSL certificate authority via OpenSSL.

openssl genrsa -des3 -out ca.key 4096
openssl req -new -x509 -days 365 -key ca.key -out ca.crt

The security, and by that I mean trust, that SSL certificates provide in major modern browsers is that only certificates that are signed by a limited number of authorities are trusted. Currently there are about 50 trusted certificate authorities in the world. [Wikipedia] If the certificate that is presented to your browser is signed by one of those CAs, then your browser trusts that it is a legitimate certificate.

Unfortunately in the real world, no computer system should be assumed safe. I would presume that all of the major CAs – Thawte, Comodo, DigiNotar and others have their private key under lock stock and barrel, but simply put, no computer system is safe from intrusion.

The Difference Between Encryption and Trust

SSL certificates play two roles in a browsing session – encryption and trust.

When you visit an SSL site on the HTTPS protocol, you are encrypting your session between two places. In a typical situation, the connection between your browser and server is encrypted, therefore any party which is trying to sniff your data in-between the two endpoints can not see your data.

Trust also occurs when you use an SSL certificate. When you visit, you assume that the certificate is only held by Google and therefore the data you are actually receiving is from, not

The Man-In-The-Middle Attack

A man in the middle attack occurs when your internet connection has been intercepted and someone is playing an active role of sniffing your data in between the two connections. When traffic is unencrypted, this is trivial in nature. When it is encrypted, for example with an SSL certificate, it becomes much more difficult. If you are not planning on modifying the data and just want to see what is occurring between the two connections, it looks something like this:

MITM Intercepts traffic from legitimate HTTPS server -> MITM decodes the content and then re-encodes with its own SSL certificate -> MITM passes all traffic back and forth using the fake SSL certificate on the client’s side, while using the real SSL certificate on the server side.

This all relies on the client’s browser accepting the SSL certificate that the MITM presents. This is why the recent DigiNotar false SSL certificate in Iran for * is so troubling. Once you have a “legitimate” SSL certificate then a MITM can decode the data without the client even knowing. This violates both the trust and encryption aspects of SSL certificates.

What is being done to protect us against MITM attacks like this?

Google is using its massive number of web crawlers to take inventory of all SSL certificates it finds. It no doubt includes this in its search rankings as well (because if a web site bothers to get an SSL certificate, it indicates it is probably a higher value site), but it can be used to increase the security of sites as well when integrated into Chrome. EFF also runs the SSL Certificate Observatory which has a similar function. The way the * certificate was discovered was that Chrome gave an error when it noticed the serial number of the certificate did not match what Google had crawled previously. This is all well and good, but it does not work in all browsers and also still allows the site to load, and I doubt a non-technically savvy person would have caught it.

Revocation lists help to recall bad certificates, but by the time a certificate is discovered and revoked the damage has already been done.

The problem is that the whole CA system is flawed. Putting trust into 50 or so companies really is a disservice for end users. Let’s say the US government puts pressure on one of the CAs to issue a similar certificate. Not to mention any hacker gaining access to the CA’s root private certificate.

There are also some at work on a SSL certificate system mixed in with DNSSEC [Ed note: strangely enough, their certificate is currently expired]. The problem again is that the root DNS servers hold a lot of power, and traffic can be spoofed.

Convergence is another tool from @moxie__ which is currently available as a Firefox plugin. It allows you to specify trust authorities which can then tell you when a certificate is insecure. I wasn’t able to try it as I’ve upgraded to Firefox 6.0 and it wasn’t compatible, but it appears to have promise. My concern is that Joe user doesn’t have enough sense to run any security plugins that require any type of input. Any final solution to the SSL CA problem will need to be standards-based and not solved as a plugin.

What Can You Do To Help

Support the IETF and other research into alternatives to the current SSL Certificate Authority system. The SSL CA system is broke, and we need a replacement ASAP if we expect to keep our connections encrypted and private.

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