The Spy in the Middle

    Date25 Mar 2010
    CategoryCryptography
    3405
    Posted ByAnthony Pell
    A decade ago, I observed that commercial certificate authorities protect you from anyone from whom they are unwilling to take money. That turns out to be wrong; they don't even do that much. SSL certificates are the primary mechanism for ensuring that secure web sites -- those displaying that reassuring "padlock" icon in the address bar -- really are who they purport to be. In order for your browser to display the padlock icon, a web site must first present a "certificate", digitally signed by a trusted "root" authority, that attests to its identity and encryption keys. Unfortunately, through a confluence of sloppy design, naked commercial maneuvering, and bad user interfaces, today's web browsers have evolved to accept certificates issued by a surprisingly large number of root authorities, from tiny, obscure businesses to various national governments. And a certificate from any one of them is usually sufficient to bless any web connection as being "secure".

    What this means is that an eavesdropper who can obtain fake certificates from any certificate authority can successfully impersonate every encrypted web site someone might visit. Most browsers will happily (and silently) accept new certificates from any valid authority, even for web sites for which certificates had already been obtained. An eavesdropper with fake certificates and access to a target's internet connection can thus quietly interpose itself as a "man-in-the-middle", observing and recording all encrypted web traffic traffic, with the user none the wiser.

    But how much of a threat is this in practice? Are there really eavesdroppers out there -- be they criminals, spies, or law enforcement agencies -- using bogus certificates to intercept encrypted web traffic? Or is this merely idle speculation, of only theoretical concern?

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