Recently, there has been an uproar as Comodo failed to do the one thing their business is supposed to do — issue certificates only to authenticated parties. (But what do you expect for a $5, few-questions-asked cert?) I’m glad there’s renewed focus on fixing the current CA and SSL browser infrastructure because this is one of the largest and most obvious security flaws in an otherwise successful protocol.
In response to this compromise, many people are recommending drastic changes. One really bad idea is getting rid of root certs in favor of SSH-style host verification. There are also some good proposals though:
Paring down number of root certs in common browsers
Root cert proliferation has gotten out-of-hand in all the major browsers. It would be great if someone analyzed which CAs are essential for all hostnames in the top 1000 sites. That info could be used to prune root certs to a smaller initial set.
It is unlikely the browser vendors will do this work themselves. They have clear financial and political incentives to add new CAs and few incentives to remove them. Even if you just consider the collateral damage to innocent sites when a root cert is removed, the costs can be huge.
The EFF had a promising start but not as much appears to have been done recently. However, they did publish this article including a list of CAs yesterday, sorted by number of times each CA signed an unqualified hostname. (Comodo is only second to Go Daddy, by the way, and Verisign is pretty high as well).
Notifying the user when a site’s cert changes
This is a pretty simple idea that has some merit. Your browser would cache the cert the first time you connect to a given server. If it changes when you revisit the site, you would get a warning. (Bonus: maintain a worldwide cache of these certs and correlate observations from various locations, like Perspectives or Google’s DNS-based cert history.)
This would have helped in the Comodo case but wouldn’t notify the user if the compromised CA were the same as the server’s current one. This scenario actually occurred in 2001 when Verisign issued another Microsoft code-signing cert to someone posing as an employee.
One usability problem of persistent cert chains is the fact that some sites use many different certs. For example, Citibank appears to have one cert per webserver, something we discuss more in our next post. This means users would get lots of spurious warnings when using their site.
Keep a hit count of CAs previously seen
This is a simple idea I came up with the other day that may be worth investigating. I’d like to see a CA “hit count” displayed alongside the list of root certs in my browser. This would help in auditing which certs are actually used by sites I visit and which are dormant. This could include the hostnames themselves as a collapsible list under each CA cert.
The important goal in considering all these proposals is to avoid making the problem worse. Nearly everyone agrees that the current situation has become untenable, and we need solutions to certificate problems now.