More on Certificates and Trust Decisions

I said earlier that certificates could be used to establish identity and hence the right
to run trustworthy software on your machine. I want to emphasize that this is not all that certificates are used for.

A lot of people are confused by this, including a lot of very smart, technically savvy developers. Cryptographic security is complex and poorly understood.

Let me give you an example. One time I went to a friend’s web site. My friend is a smart and highly experienced developer. His web site happens to use HTTPS, the “secure protocol”, and I was very surprised when I got an error message from IE saying that the certificate associated with the site could not be trusted because it was self-signed. In other words, the certificate says “The bearer’s name is Sven Svenson. The bearer’s identity has been confirmed by Sven Svenson.”

Obviously that is not any kind of identity-establishing evidence! To trust the cert you have to trust the certifying authority, but the certifying authority is the person whose identity is in question! This chain of trust is not rooted in an explicitly trusted authority, so it is worthless. What is stopping, say, Bjorn Bjornson from typing up the same certificate? Nothing!

I asked my friend why he didn’t use a Verisign certificate and his answer surprised me: “Nobody’s told me that they won’t use the service unless I got a Verisign cert. And if they did, I’d probably tell them that they shouldn’t use my system if they don’t trust me.”

My friend was confusing code signing with secure HTTP. HTTPS does not use certs to establish a trust relationship between the client and the server by establishing the identity of the author! HTTPS uses certs to establish secure communication over an insecure network by establishing identity of the web site.

Those sure sound similar but they are in fact completely different uses of certs. Why? Because in the first case, it is the code author who is (potentially) untrusted. In the second case, it is the network that is (definitely) untrusted.

Before I continue let me briefly explain what the goal of HTTPS is, and how it works.

The goal of HTTPS is to ensure that when you send information over the internet, two things happen. First, the information is encrypted so that if it is intercepted, the eavesdropper cannot read it. Second, the server that you’re talking to really is the server that you think you’re talking to.

We have these two goals because there are two threats: first, someone might be listening in on the traffic between the client and the server, so you need to ensure that they can’t make sense of what they overhear. Second, someone may have set up a “fake” server that fools your client into believing that it is talking to the “real” server, so you need to ensure that you are talking to the “real” server.

When you go to a secure web site — like your bank, or Amazon or some other web site involving transmission of credit card numbers over the internet — the first thing the web site does is send you a certificate containing the name of the web site. The certificate has been signed by a trusted root — Verisign, for example. Your browser can then compare the certificate’s web site name with the web site you actually went to, and because it is vouched for by Verisign, you know that you really are talking to the right server. The certificate also contains information about how to encrypt messages so that only the server can decrypt them. That is then enough information to mitigate both threats and establish a secure channel. (The details of how that channel is established are not particularly germane; I may discuss this in a future post.)

I’ll say it again: the certificate is not there to establish a trust relationship between the client and the server. The certificate is there so that you know that you are talking to the real server, and no one can eavesdrop. This is the internet we’re talking about: for all you know, evil geniuses have cut every line between you and the entire internet and have inserted their own evil routers and servers that look just like the real internet. (For all you know, this is someone else’s blog!) It’s Verisign’s job to ensure that those evil geniuses never get their hands on a certificate vouched for by Verisign, because that is the only evidence you have that you are actually talking to the real

So when you go to a web site with a self-signed HTTPS certificate, IE pops up an “abort
or continue?” dialog box. What that box is trying to communicate is:

“You are trying to communicate securely with FooCorp’s web server but because the certificate does not establish a chain of trust, IE is unable to determine if the insecure internet between you and FooCorp has been taken over by evil genius hackers who are presently spoofing you into believing that you are on the real internet. Do you want to go ahead and possibly be spoofed, or stop right now?”

Unfortunately, the dialog box is not particularly clear on this point, and besides, everyone clicks “OK” without reading dialog boxes. But that’s another story.

To sum up: whether you trust FooCorp or not is not the issue — if you’re going to send them your credit card number, presumably you already trust them! What you don’t trust is the wiring between you and them. There might be hackers at their ISP, or your ISP, or at any node on the network. There might be people listening with packet sniffers and packet replacers. There might be people listening to your wireless network traffic. HTTPS is designed to protect users against untrustworthy, insecure or hostile network providers by ensuring identity and encrypting traffic.

There were a lot of good responses to this article, mostly on the topic of the correct uses of self-signed certificates, and the business model and trustworthiness of VeriSign.

There are of course valid uses of self-signed certificates; trust chains typically end in a self-signed certificate after all. The point is that you must have some tamperproof way of obtaining a self-signed root and some way of verifying the identity associated with that certificate; obviously neither transport nor verification must involve checking the signature of the certificate! But if you have some other way to do those things, then a self-signed cert is fine; put it in your root store and you’re all set.

Self-signed certs also solve the problem of “I don’t care about the identity of who I’m talking to, but I do care that this identity remains constant over time”. Whether that is a realistic scenario or not, I can’t say.

VeriSign at the time charged $1000 for a certificate, which many people noted was high for individuals, though perhaps not for corporations. Theses days of course there are free certifying authorities.

The suggestion was made that “loop signed” certificates could be a thing; you could have a group of certifying authorities get together and X signs Y’s certificate, who signs Z’s certificate, who signs X’s certificate, and this is in a sense stronger than a self-signed certificate. I don’t know; that sounds complicated and like it doesn’t actually solve the problem, but I have not done a detailed analysis.

People also pointed out that VeriSign had made some high-profile mistakes: granting a Microsoft certificate to someone who didn’t work for Microsoft, messing up DNS, and so on.


1 thought on “More on Certificates and Trust Decisions

  1. Pingback: Porting old posts, part 2 | Fabulous adventures in coding

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