Perimeter
6/20/2011
10:43 PM
Taher Elgamal
Taher Elgamal
Commentary
50%
50%

Leaps Of Faith

Mobile is more secure than the browser realm because most mobile transactions are conducted through applications, not the browser

Certificates and SSL use a proven, time-honored cryptographic protocol that most of us benefit from every day. Still, phishing attacks do occur; bad guys continue to use fake forms that trick users into providing sensitive information. The protocols are by no means responsible for these events, but they do get blamed, largely because an act of trust was committed through the browser, and certificates and SSL are directly involved in determining who the browser trusts.

So who should the browser trust?

This is a question we asked about 15 years ago when we were developing SSL, and it’s still relevant. Just as it was back then, the browser today is the client through which the world accesses websites, and no one wants to restrict access to sites, especially trusted ones.

So what we are facing is a compromise between security and functionality, one that allows users to trust whomever they wish, but delivers warnings in a pop-up window if the certificate they’re about to accept comes from an unknown source. If they wish to go ahead and trust it, then they may proceed -- and the fact is that nearly everyone ignores the pop-up warning and clicks through, behaving as if they trust most sites they approach.

It’s this assumption of trust, not the SSL protocol, that is responsible for the success of phishing attacks and identity theft. In fact, when SSL is used in the back-end and in server-to-server connections, it is literally not possible to connect to the wrong place. Because this use of SSL relies on mutual authentication, one simply does not see the kinds of security issues that crop up when individual users in charge of the decision to trust or not trust a certificate.

Similarly -- and this might come as a surprise -- from a security standpoint, the mobile realm is far more secure than the browser realm, because most mobile transactions are conducted through applications, not browsers. With mobile apps, for instance, the certificates are already built in -- they don’t allow the user to trust any random site and click “Yes” to a pop-up window that should genuinely give them pause. They don’t force the user to wonder who the browser should trust, because it’s not a browser.

The pop-up “warning” window that makes certificate trust a user option was, frankly, the wrong decision. We didn’t spend enough time thinking about how to give the browser an absolutely trusted certificate, and how to eliminate the need for the user to take frequent leaps of faith with random sites.

Will those who blame certificates and SSL for phishing attacks be silenced when every transaction has its own dedicated application, and the browser is relegated to a “stand-by” app for when no dedicated app is available? I believe many of us are already previewing this phishing-free future as we access the Web via smartphones, and rely more and more on a wide range of applications that have come of age since the debut of the app stores some years back.

Recognized in the industry as the "inventor of SSL," Dr. Taher Elgamal led the SSL efforts at Netscape. He also wrote the SSL patent and promoted SSL as the Internet security standard within standard committees and the industry. Dr. Elgamal invented several industry and government standards in data security and digital signatures area, including the DSS government standard for digital signatures. In addition to serving on numerous corporate advisory boards, Dr. Elgamal is the Chief Security Officer at Axway, a global provider of multi-enterprise solutions and infrastructure. He holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University. View more of his blog posts here.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Cartoon
Current Issue
Dark Reading Tech Digest, Dec. 19, 2014
Software-defined networking can be a net plus for security. The key: Work with the network team to implement gradually, test as you go, and take the opportunity to overhaul your security strategy.
Flash Poll
Title Partner’s Role in Perimeter Security
Title Partner’s Role in Perimeter Security
Considering how prevalent third-party attacks are, we need to ask hard questions about how partners and suppliers are safeguarding systems and data.
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2014-5208
Published: 2014-12-22
BKBCopyD.exe in the Batch Management Packages in Yokogawa CENTUM CS 3000 through R3.09.50 and CENTUM VP through R4.03.00 and R5.x through R5.04.00, and Exaopc through R3.72.10, does not require authentication, which allows remote attackers to read arbitrary files via a RETR operation, write to arbit...

CVE-2014-7286
Published: 2014-12-22
Buffer overflow in AClient in Symantec Deployment Solution 6.9 and earlier on Windows XP and Server 2003 allows local users to gain privileges via unspecified vectors.

CVE-2014-8015
Published: 2014-12-22
The Sponsor Portal in Cisco Identity Services Engine (ISE) allows remote authenticated users to obtain access to an arbitrary sponsor's guest account via a modified HTTP request, aka Bug ID CSCur64400.

CVE-2014-8017
Published: 2014-12-22
The periodic-backup feature in Cisco Identity Services Engine (ISE) allows remote attackers to discover backup-encryption passwords via a crafted request that triggers inclusion of a password in a reply, aka Bug ID CSCur41673.

CVE-2014-8018
Published: 2014-12-22
Multiple cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities in Business Voice Services Manager (BVSM) pages in the Application Software in Cisco Unified Communications Domain Manager 8 allow remote attackers to inject arbitrary web script or HTML via a crafted URL, aka Bug IDs CSCur19651, CSCur18555, CSCur1...

Best of the Web
Dark Reading Radio
Archived Dark Reading Radio
Join us Wednesday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. Eastern Time to hear what employers are really looking for in a chief information security officer -- it may not be what you think.