Says Matt Blaze:
A decade ago, I observed that commercial certificate authorities protect you from anyone from whom they are unwilling to take money. That turns out to be wrong; they don’t even do that much.
Scary research by Christopher Soghoian and Sid Stamm:
Abstract: This paper introduces a new attack, the compelled certificate creation attack, in which government agencies compel a certificate authority to issue false SSL certificates that are then used by intelligence agencies to covertly intercept and hijack individuals’ secure Web-based communications. We reveal alarming evidence that suggests that this attack is in active use. Finally, we introduce a lightweight browser add-on that detects and thwarts such attacks.
Even more scary, Soghoian and Stamm found that hardware to perform this attack is being produced and sold:
At a recent wiretapping convention, however, security researcher Chris Soghoian discovered that a small company was marketing internet spying boxes to the feds. The boxes were designed to intercept those communications—without breaking the encryption—by using forged security certificates, instead of the real ones that websites use to verify secure connections. To use the appliance, the government would need to acquire a forged certificate from any one of more than 100 trusted Certificate Authorities.
The company in question is known as Packet Forensics…. According to the flyer: “Users have the ability to import a copy of any legitimate key they obtain (potentially by court order) or they can generate ‘look-alike’ keys designed to give the subject a false sense of confidence in its authenticity.” The product is recommended to government investigators, saying “IP communication dictates the need to examine encrypted traffic at will.” And, “Your investigative staff will collect its best evidence while users are lulled into a false sense of security afforded by web, e-mail or VOIP encryption.”
Matt Blaze has the best analysis. Read his whole commentary; this is just the ending:
It’s worth pointing out that, from the perspective of a law enforcement or intelligence agency, this sort of surveillance is far from ideal. A central requirement for most government wiretapping (mandated, for example, in the CALEA standards for telephone interception) is that surveillance be undetectable. But issuing a bogus web certificate carries with it the risk of detection by the target, either in real-time or after the fact, especially if it’s for a web site already visited. Although current browsers don’t ordinarily detect unusual or suspiciously changed certificates, there’s no fundamental reason they couldn’t (and the Soghoian/Stamm paper proposes a Firefox plugin to do just that). In any case, there’s no reliable way for the wiretapper to know in advance whether the target will be alerted by a browser that scrutinizes new certificates.
Also, it’s not clear how web interception would be particularly useful for many of the most common law enforcement investigative scenarios. If a suspect is buying books or making hotel reservations online, it’s usually a simple (and legally relatively uncomplicated) matter to just ask the vendor about the transaction, no wiretapping required. This suggests that these products may be aimed less at law enforcement than at national intelligence agencies, who might be reluctant (or unable) to obtain overt cooperation from web site operators (who may be located abroad).