SSL Skeleton Keys

From the Ars lede:

Critics are calling for the ouster of Trustwave as a trusted issuer of secure sockets layer certificates after it admitted minting a credential it knew would be used by a customer to impersonate websites it didn’t own.

The so-called subordinate root certificate allowed the customer to issue SSL credentials that Internet Explorer and other major browsers would accept as valid for any server on the Internet. The unnamed buyer of this skeleton key used it to perform what amounted to man-in-the-middle attacks that monitored users of its internal network as they accessed SSL-encrypted websites and services. The data-loss-prevention system used a hardware security module to ensure the private key at the heart of the root certificate wasn’t accidentally leaked or retrieved by hackers.

It’s not new that these keys are issued – and, in fact, governments are strongly believed to compel such keys from authorities in their jurisdiction – but the significance of these keys cannot be overstated. SSL is intended to encourage trust: if you see that a site is using SSL then that site is supposed to be ‘safe’. This is the lesson that the Internet industry has been pounding into end-users/consumers for ages. eCommerce largely depends on consumers ‘getting’ this message.

The problem is that the lesson is increasingly untrue.

Given the sale of ‘skeleton key’ certs, the hacking of authorities to generate (illegitimate) certs for major websites (e.g.,,, etc), and widespread backend problems with SSL implementation, it is practically impossible to claim the SSL makes things ‘safe’. While SSL isn’t in the domain of security theatre, it can only be seen as marginally increasing protection instead of making individuals, and their online transactions, safe.

This is significant for the end-user/consumer, because they psychologically respond to the difference between ‘safe’ and ‘safer’. Ideally a next-generation, peer-reviewable and trust agile, system will be formally adopted by the major players in the near future. Only after the existing problems around SSL are worked out – through trust agility, certificate pinning, and so forth – will the user experience be moved back towards the ‘safe’ position in the ‘safe/unsafe’ continuum.

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