It's Time to Improve Website Identity Indicators, Not Remove Them

Why Google and Mozilla are wrong about the benefits of Extended Validation certificates that aim to prevent fraud and protect user privacy.

Tim Callan, Senior Fellow, Sectigo

October 24, 2019

5 Min Read

We're seeing much effort toward protecting consumer privacy worldwide — in Congress, with the GDPR, and other initiatives. But how can we protect web privacy without establishing the identity of the websites users visit? Extended Validation (EV) certificates are a highly effective way to provide this information and protect consumers.

However, Google and Mozilla have announced that they are eliminating interface indicators showing that a site has been authenticated with an EV certificate, arguing that the EV user interface does not protect users as intended. We believe this is a mistake and encourage them to come up with innovative ways to use EV data rather than hide it. Here are four reasons why.

Reason 1: EV has helped protect web identity and privacy for a decade.
For years, websites that want to show users their confirmed identity have gone through the EV process when buying SSL/TLS certificates from public certificate authorities (CAs). Similar to banking rules, EV certificates include encrypted, in-depth information about the business and the owner. Financial sites, online retailers, hospitals, and other businesses use them to protect their customers and their brands from phishers. The most common alternative to EV certificates is Domain Validation (DV) certificates, which contain no identity or contact information.

For the past decade, browsers have distinguished websites that use EV certificates with a distinctive indicator. This indicator conveys very useful information, as the incidence of phishing sites using EV is nearly zero. Once Google and Mozilla remove the EV indicator from their Chrome and Firefox browsers, users will only see a site's URL, just as they do for DV sites. We believe this change is based on flawed analyses.

Reason 2: Phishing on DV sites is skyrocketing, and users are safer with EV.
Until recently, almost all phishing and malware was on unencrypted http sites that displayed a neutral UI. Users were trained to "look for the lock symbol" for security. But when Google and Mozilla incentivized websites to move to encryption through their "Not Secure" warnings, phishers' motivation to include free, anonymous DV certificates increased. Predictably, virtually all phishing has now moved to DV-encrypted websites that display the lock symbol.

Browser companies contend that EV marks are unnecessary because end users don't understand them. However, not all users are alike, and it would be more accurate to say "Not all users understand them." For those who do understand, these browsers have taken away the opportunity to know when a site comes from a company with a known, verified identity.

Reason 3: EV indicators offer intuitive, proactive security.
Without the EV identity browser indicator, users are back to looking at the URL and trying to puzzle out if it's legitimate or not. Or, if they're lucky enough that the browser identifies a phishing site as such, they may receive a warning. URLs are notoriously difficult to parse, with many phishing techniques building upon the ability to create a confusing URL. Take the example of 2018's massive British Airways breach, which compromised 380,000 customers' personally identifiable information and payment data and was enabled by the use of the deceptive URL

Some say the EV UI should go away because users don't understand the specific organization information that's displayed. We believe this is a reason to improve the indicator — not remove it.

An improved EV indicator would have the potential to offer proactive security, protecting users before they share data. Browser phishing filters are reactive, meaning some users will of necessity get hurt before the filters can find them. And to evade the filter, a banned phisher can simply shut down the offending site and then anonymously run the same scam from a new domain.

Some industry watchers object that if user trust in EV sites increases, then phishers will simply get EV certificates. That's possible, but once a phisher with an EV certificate uses it for a scam, the issuer will surely revoke the certificate and add the organization's name and domains to its flag list — blocking their ability to get another EV certificate from that CA forever. Therefore, sustainable, high-volume phishing schemes become unsustainable using EV certificates.

Reason 4: The industry needs an evolving EV standard.
Member companies of the CA Security Council were among those that put together the original EV specification, envisioning a standard that would continue to evolve and improve. To combat phishing and raise identity standards for websites, we believe browser companies should work together to develop common security indicators and work with CAs to help train and educate users on security best practices. 

As phishing attacks continue to increase and evolve, our identity and security standards — and user education — must as well. EV certificates represent a great opportunity for innovation and collaboration that will benefit web users and the whole industry.

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About the Author(s)

Tim Callan

Senior Fellow, Sectigo

Senior Fellow Tim Callan contributes to Sectigo's standards and practices, industry relations, product roadmap, and go-to-market strategy. A founding member of the CA/Browser Forum, Tim has more than 20 years of experience as a product and strategic marketing leader for successful B2B software and SaaS companies, with 15 years' experience in the SSL and PKI technology spaces. Prior to Sectigo, Tim has been vice president of product marketing at Verisign, CMO of Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services, CMO of RetailNext, and CMO of SLI Systems. Tim sat on the boards of directors for DigiCert and the Online Trust Alliance. His popular PKI and security podcast, Root Causes, is available on Spotify, iTunes, SoundCloud, and other services.

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