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New Certification Authority To Offer Free Certs For HTTPS

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's new certificate authority aims to make getting a domain validation TLS cert so easy, you can't resist.

The process of obtaining SSL/TLS certificates is cumbersome enough to convince many domain owners that it isn't worth the trouble, but a new certificate authority (CA) seeks to change that and make it free of cost -- making the process so quick and easy that every site will be convinced to shift from "http" to "https."

The new CA, a nonprofit called Let's Encrypt, was announced yesterday by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), with plans to begin issuing free domain verification certificates as soon as June 2015. The CA is a collaborative effort of researchers and developers at the EFF, Mozilla, and the University of Michigan, with support from Cisco, Akamai, and Identrust.

Back in 2012, Josh Aas and Eric Rescorla, co-workers at Mozilla, were discussing ideas for widely increasing the use of SSL/TLS online. "Everything was really hard," says Aas, "unless you owned the CA."

They brought their idea for a new CA to their employers at Mozilla, who agreed to support them as their first major sponsor. In 2013, they created the Internet Security Research Group (ISRG), which will operate the new CA. Aas is currently its executive director. They then learned that the EFF was working on similar plans and decided to team up.

The usual process for obtaining an SSL or TLS cert takes between one and three hours, according to the EFF. Let's Encrypt reduces this time to 20-30 seconds. You don't even need to visit the Let's Encrypt website to get it.

Such speed requires a high degree of automation, so the researchers created ACME, a new protocol for obtaining and managing certificates. However, that automation limits what sort of verification they can do. So Let's Encrypt will only be able to issue domain validation certs -- you'll have to go elsewhere for extended validation.

At the moment, Let's Encrypt does not have a root certificate developed or accepted by browsers. This process could take years. In the meantime, another CA, IdenTrust, has agreed to vouch for Let's Encrypt by cross-signing its root, thereby allowing people to obtain Let's Encrypt certs.

Aas says Let's Encrypt intends to start issuing certs in June 2015. "We also want more transparency about what certs are issued." Certificates can be issued with greater confidence when a CA can see what certs have been issued by other authorities. The EFF's Decentralized SSL Observatory, the University of Michigan's scans.io, and Google's Certificate Transparency logs are examples of these public cert databases, and the ISRG intends to follow suit. "We're committed to publishing every cert we issue."

Sara Peters is Senior Editor at Dark Reading and formerly the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
11/24/2014 | 8:17:34 AM
Re: New Certification Authority To Offer Free Certs For HTTPS
Perhaps I stated that too simply. I also urge them to check the certificate to verify the site appears to be legit. The point of my post was to stress that confidence can be taken advantage of due to this new development. While I do agree that consumers have to take responsibility for their security and privacy, it is becoming harder for the lay person to do so without adequate information or awareness training.
User Rank: Ninja
11/23/2014 | 11:34:26 PM
Re: adoption
@Kelly Jackson Higgins,... "It will be really interesting to see how this takes off."... can you say Anti-Trust lawsuit... there is no way Symantec and the other big-boy CA's will let this happen.
User Rank: Strategist
11/21/2014 | 5:53:09 PM
Re: New Certification Authority To Offer Free Certs For HTTPS
@GonzSTL I don't make that assumption. I tell people that if it is https, they know that nobody is snooping at the traffic because it is encrypted but they still need to know who is at the other end.
User Rank: Ninja
11/21/2014 | 2:18:41 PM
New Certification Authority To Offer Free Certs For HTTPS
Interesting. I usually tell folks that when they perform e-commerce transactions such as buying online, to look for the "HTTPS" prefix in the URL. It gives them some sort of assurance that the site is at least legit and inspires confidence in their transaction with respect to privacy and security. Based on this new development, and if I were a bad guy, I would create a domain website with SSL or TLS certs and bank on users' expected trust behavior to distribute malware or steal credentials. After all, don't we usually trust domain validated sites that offer encryption?
Kelly Jackson Higgins
Kelly Jackson Higgins,
User Rank: Strategist
11/21/2014 | 1:34:56 PM
It will be really interesting to see how this takes off. If it does and gets widespread adoption, it will be a whole new generation for the Net.
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