Debating the Firefox SSL Certificate

Debate is reaching a fever pitch over a new security feature in Firefox 3.0 that throws out a warning page to users when a Web site's SSL certificate is expired or has not been issued by a trusted third party.

Critics say that Firefox 3.0 is putting undue fear and confusion into everyday Web surfers, makes it difficult to set exceptions for certain Web sites, and is forcing Web site operators to do business with specific vendors of SSL certificates or risk the appearance that their Web sites are broken.

Browsers require SSL certificates to initiate encrypted communications and to validate the authenticity of a site.The Mozilla.com Web site, where Firefox 3.0 can be freely downloaded, defends the new feature, saying SSL certificates not issued by a validated certificate authority -- so-called self-signed certificates (SSC) -- don't provide even basic validation; and expired certificates should not be viewed as "harmless" because they open avenues for hackers.

Mozilla officials say the new feature helps curb electronic eavesdropping or so-called "man in the middle" attacks.

The certificate issue is cropping up on such major sites as the U.S. Army's, which uses certificates issued by the Department of Defense. In the Army's case, Firefox does not recognize the DOD as an authorized certificate provider. Firefox, therefore, rejects the Army site's certificate and defaults to a Web page showing a traffic-cop icon and proclaiming "secure connection failed" and that the site's certificate can not be trusted.

The problem also has surfaced with expired SSL certificates on such sites as Google Checkout and LinkedIn. The issue also could crop up on intranet sites that use SSCs and force IT administrators to configure exceptions within the browser or other workarounds.

Some are saying that Firefox 3.0 is out of line.

The Pingdom.com blog this week took Mozilla to task, saying the issue could affect tens of thousands of sites. "People most in need of a clear and explicit warning regarding SSL certificates are inexperienced users, and those are not very likely to understand the error message that Firefox 3 is displaying. A large portion will simply be scared away, thinking that the Web site is broken," according to the blog.

Developer Nat Tuck called the Firefox feature bad for the Web in a blog post he wrote July 31: "Mozilla Firefox 3 limits usable encrypted (SSL) Web sites to those who are willing to pay money to one of their approved digital-certificate vendors. This policy is bad for the Web."

Tuck concedes that the SSCs provide no value for authenticating a Web site, but he says Firefox is ignoring the encryption capabilities of SSL certificates, which thwart snooping on Web traffic.He even goes so far as to suggest perhaps open source advocates should create a derivative of the open source Firefox code that includes full SSL functions.

Mozilla.com officials says SSCs have been treated as "disconcerting" for some time by the open source browser and what changed in Firefox 3.0 is an attempt to make users understand the potential consequences of accepting such certificates.

The officials directed inquires on the certificate topic to a blog penned by Mozilla developer Jonathan Nightingale, who wrote that one reason for the changes is that man-in-the-middle attacks "used to be the stuff of scary security fiction, but now they are point-and-click." Some of these attacks were highlighted at the recent Black Hat conference.

Home cable and DSL routers, and Wi-Fi access points can be compromised easily by hackers, who can reconfigure the boxes and route traffic anywhere they want, Nightingale wrote. "The only thing that will tell you whether the sites you are visiting are real is the existence of a trusted certificate, which only the legitimate site can have," he added.

Nightingale wrote that SSCs are not evil, but the question is can they be trusted? "So we ask the user," he wrote. He also pointed out that users can create exceptions, in essence telling the browser to trust specific site certificates.

Nightingale did admit the SSL feature isn't above questioning. "I don't think the approach in Firefox 3 is perfect, I'm not sure any of us do," he wrote. And he invited input and solicited help making browsing safer: "It sure would be nice if we didn't start from the assumption that changes are motivated by greed, malice, or stupidity."

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