Why CA-based SSL is not likely to be replaced any time soon

December 31, 2011

A whole lot of things have been written this year about better versions of SSL designed to get away from the many practical weaknesses of the current CA-based SSL model (you know, the one where CAs have terrible business practices, get compromised, and get leaned on by governments). Unfortunately, I don't think that any of them are likely to catch on any time soon, because of what is essentially the inverse of the false positives problem.

The reality is that forged SSL certificates are in general a very infrequent occurrence. All (or almost all) of the proposed solutions to them are at least moderately difficult; they involve additional code, additional infrastructure, additional TCP connections during SSL connections, disclosure risks for what you're making SSL connections to, and so on. In short, the proposed solutions add pain. And the reality of the world is that taking on pain (possibly a lot of it) in order to solve a rare problem is not a successful sales pitch anywhere outside of the mathematical side of security and cryptography. Especially, browser vendors are going to be naturally unenthused about anything that makes SSL connections worse in practice (slower, fail more often, etc) in order to deal with a rare occurrence.

The corollary of this is that any realistic replacement for CA-based SSL must be cheap and simple overall. My impression is that the only possible candidate for this is SSL certificate information in DNSSec-signed DNS records. This has the virtue that it needs almost no extra connections or queries, does not require any outside infrastructure, and does not disclose your browsing to third parties. It can also be deployed incrementally.

(It has the drawback that it only works for sites that have a DNSSec trust path to the root. If your TLD has not gone DNSSec yet, you lose even if you're all ready yourself.)


Written on 31 December 2011.
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