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Vulnerabilities / Threats

4/7/2011
06:27 PM
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EFF Uncovers Evidence Of Certificate Authority Apathy

Electronic Frontier Foundation research digs up 37,244 'unqualified' names that were given digital certificates

In yet another example of a flawed SSL website certificate registration process, researchers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found tens of thousands of unqualified website names that had been registered by certificate authorities.

The EFF via its SL Observatory project, which studies all of the certificates used to secure all HTTPS websites, discovered some 37,244 "unqualified" names that had been given digital certificates, including "localhost" (2,201 certificates), "exchange" (806), "exchange" in the name (2,383), and "01srvech" (5,657).

The recent hack of a Comodo SSL reseller and the subsequent issuance of nine website certificates for fraudulent sites was a painful wake-up call for a process that security researchers had long been warning was deeply flawed and ripe for exploitation.

Comodo's model of letting resellers freely issue certificates on their own, without Comodo's validation, was at the heart of the hack, security experts say.

The EFF research highlights how CAs routinely sign certificates for unqualified website names. "That they do so in large numbers indicates that they do not even minimally validate the certificates they sign. This significantly undermines CAs’ claim to be trustworthy authorities for internet names. It also puts internet users at increased risk of network attack," blogged Chris Palmer, technology director at the EFF.

Signing website certificates registering as "localhost" indicates that CAs aren't vetting these submissions. "The most common unqualified name is 'localhost,' which always refers to your own computer! It simply makes no sense for a public CA to sign a certificate for this private name," Palmer said.

This lax process leaves the door open for attackers to wage man-in-the-middle attacks, he said. "The bad behavior of CAs helps attackers," he said.

The EFF called for CAs to stop signing unqualified name submissions and to revoke certificates that were issued for any unqualified names. "They should also stop signing IP addresses -- especially private, nonroutable addresses -- and should revoke existing IP address certificates, too," EFF's Palmer said.

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Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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