In the wake of this weekend’s revelations of the seriousness of the attack on certificate authority DigiNotar, security experts have renewed criticism of the Internet’s digital certificate infrastructure, with some wondering if larger certificate authorities (CAs) might be too big to fail.
DigiNotar’s network had significant security weaknesses that allowed an attacker to issue an unknown number of untraceable certificates, a report by Dutch security firm Fox-IT found. The situation has led the Dutch government to take over operations of the CA, and major browser vendors to patch their products, breaking the trust their software has of secure-sockets layer (SSL) certificates issued by DigiNotar.
Revoking Diginotar’s authority was necessary because the company failed to secure its infrastructure, allowing an unknown number of certificates to be created, says Moxie Marlinspike, chief technology officer of startup mobile security firm Whisper Systems. The result will likely be that DigiNotar will not survive as a certificate authority.
“It’s not a simple matter of removing certificates from a database, because they’re not in any databases,” says Marlinspike, who presented an alternative approach to the current SSL infrastructure last month at DEFCON. “We may never track them all down.”
While revoking trust in Diginotar may help bring that crisis to a close, Marlinspike is among a large number of security researchers who worry that larger firms such as Comodo or VeriSign may likewise be vulnerable. Unlike Diginotar, those larger certificate authorities may be “too big to fail” – forcing browser makers to keep them on their lists of trusted issuers out of fear of the disruption that blacklisting them would cause.
In March, certificate authority Comodo acknowledged that an attacker had been able to issue at least nine certificates for major domains, such as Google and Yahoo. However, because of the limited nature of the breach, browser makers decided only to revoke the fraudulent certificates.
Yet it is unclear whether a more significant breach would have resulted in Comodo losing its authority, says Peter Gutmann, a researcher in computer science at the University of Auckland.
“Once you’ve issued enough (certificates), the browser vendors won’t pull your CA cert any more because it would affect too many people,” Gutmann says. “This is what saved Comodo. In Diginotar’s case they were small enough that the browser vendors could pull their certs.”
Mozilla justified its decision to rescind trust in DigiNotar by noting that the extent of the breach is still unknown, that DigiNotar failed to notify the public in a timely manner, and that attacks using the certificates have been document in the wild, Johnathan Nightingale, Director of Firefox Engineering, stated in a post on Friday.
“The integrity of the SSL system cannot be maintained in secrecy,” Nightingale wrote. “Incidents like this one demonstrate the need for active, immediate and comprehensive communication between CAs and software vendors to keep our collective users safe online.”
Comodo argues that it avoided that kind of “worst case” scenario because it had a diverse set of defenses in place to limit the breach.
As certificate authorities grow, so does their responsibility to provide better security. “Larger CAs should have more resources for monitoring, detecting and reacting quickly to these kind of attacks,” said Melih Abdulhayoglu, CEO of Comodo. “If you remember Comodo reacted within minutes and provided transparency to the world in a timely manner.”
Security researchers, however, argue that the best defense against a breach at a certificate authority is for browser makers to find other ways to ensure online safety.
“I might say that concentrating all risk in a single, failure-prone mechanism that has been shown to have zero effect in stopping the bad guys is a really, really bad idea,” says the University of Auckland’s Gutmann.
Part of the problem is that attacks on third-party trust providers such as Comodo, RSA and DigiNotar are a new trend, says Jeff Hudson, CEO of Venafi, a maker of certificate management software. As security professionals focus on the problem, better policies will be put in place that will mitigate the threat of a major breach at a large CA.
Rather than place total trust in a CA, for example, users in the future might be able to decide who to trust or have a sliding scale of risk. A valid certificate, brand-name domain and valid domain-name record would be positive factors. A certificate issued by a compromised CA, for example, a suspicious DNS record, or just-issued certificate would be negative factors.
For now, however, companies that rely on SSL certificates for their business need to be prepared for the worst, Hudson says.
“Right now, the state of preparedness for failure is dismal,” he says. “People have to recognize this and be ready. You have to know who your trust providers are, where you assets are, and be ready to swap out a provider’s certificates in hours.”