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Perimeter

6/20/2011
10:43 PM
Taher Elgamal
Taher Elgamal
Commentary
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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.

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