Is SSL Broken

While every single bank and ecommerce provider tells you that SSL (or HTTPS) is wonderful and fully protects you, unless they are on drugs, they don’t really believe that.  From their perspective, the risk is manageable and they would rather reimburse you if you can prove their SSL connection leaked AND cost you money than tell you that it is not very secure.

Lets remove some of the reasons that people usually give for why HTTPS is not secure and get down to my pet peeve.  First, if you use a public WiFi hotspot, it can execute what is called a man in the middle attack and have your device exchange a handshake with the hotspot instead of the real site.  Your device will never know and the hotspot will see your data in the clear.

Next, there have been many instances of hackers operating fake WiFi hotspots.  Even if the real hotspot is clean, the fake one may execute a man in the middle attack on your traffic.

Next are the bugs in the software.  This year there have been several.  One example is  Heartbleed, which affected the server side of the connection and may have compromised the private half of the SSL lock and key for millions of servers.  Many servers have fixed the problem but many did not bother to create new private keys.  Many have not fixed it.

Next is the problem of revoked certificates.  After Heartbleed was fixed, hundreds of thousands of certificates were revoked because they may have been compromised.  The CRL (certificate revocation list) infrastructure was not and is not designed to handle that.  Firefox uses OCSP, the Online Certificate Status Protocol, but by default, it will accept a certificate if it does not get a speedy response to its request to find out if the certificate is valid.  Some browsers just ignore the CRL question entirely.

Which leads us to my pet peeve.

I looked inside Firefox on my Windows PC today and found HUNDREDS of certificate authorities loaded into the browser.  The Certificate Authority or CA is the (supposedly) trusted organization which certifies that your little SSL padlock – the one that says you are you – is really you.  So who is in the list?  China Telecom.  Hong Kong Telecom. Definitely trust China!  Not!  Actually I did until I deleted their records.  Korea (I hope that would be South and not North).  Many other somewhat friendly countries.  And many that are probably from the U.S. but whom I have never heard of.  I deleted probably 50 of them off Firefox today and there are still more than a hundred active.

Chrome and Internet Explorer use a different CA list than Firefox does.  Apple has their CA list.  If you delete it from your home computer that does not delete it from your phone.  Or your tablet.  Or your laptop.  Think of all the devices that your family uses and you are probably talking well over 1,000 trusted CAs (of course there is a bunch of overlap, but that doesn’t really matter, because even if you tell your desktop you don’t trust China Telecom, you also have to separately tell your phone and your tablet and if you use Chrome and Firefox both, you have to tell each of them separately, even on the same device).

If I had my way, I would have 4 or 5 entries in there and kiss the rest goodbye.

Of course, there is not a decent user interface to manage that and I don’t know, but would not be surprised, if after firefox does an update, China is back.   I will have to test that theory.

Many people agree that SSL is hopelessly broken.  Here is an article from The Register on the subject.  I Googled “is SSL broken” and got 12,400,000 hits.

The bad news is that no one is working on a replacement and even if they did, it would take years to get everyone to agree to it and then we would need to figure out how to do the transition.

Which is why the merchants all cross their fingers behind their backs and say “sure;  it’s secure”.