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.
SSL certificates are the primary mechanism for ensuring that secure web sites -- those displaying that reassuring "padlock" icon in the address bar -- really are who they purport to be. In order for your browser to display the padlock icon, a web site must first present a "certificate", digitally signed by a trusted "root" authority, that attests to its identity and encryption keys.
Unfortunately, through a confluence of sloppy design, naked commercial maneuvering, and bad user interfaces, today's web browsers have evolved to accept certificates issued by a surprisingly large number of root authorities, from tiny, obscure businesses to various national governments. And a certificate from any one of them is usually sufficient to bless any web connection as being "secure".
What this means is that an eavesdropper who can obtain fake certificates from any certificate authority can successfully impersonate every encrypted web site someone might visit. Most browsers will happily (and silently) accept new certificates from any valid authority, even for web sites for which certificates had already been obtained. An eavesdropper with fake certificates and access to a target's internet connection can thus quietly interpose itself as a "man-in-the-middle", observing and recording all encrypted web traffic traffic, with the user none the wiser.
But how much of a threat is this in practice? Are there really eavesdroppers out there -- be they criminals, spies, or law enforcement agencies -- using bogus certificates to intercept encrypted web traffic? Or is this merely idle speculation, of only theoretical concern?
A paper published today by Chris Soghoian and Sid Stamm [pdf] suggests that the threat may be far more practical than previously thought. They found turnkey surveillance products, marketed and sold to law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the US and foreign countries, designed to collect encrypted SSL traffic based on forged "look-alike" certificates obtained from cooperative certificate authorities. The products (apparently available only to government agencies) appear sophisticated, mature, and mass-produced, suggesting that "certified man-in-the-middle" web surveillance is at least commonplace and widespread enough to support an active vendor community. Wired's Ryan Singel reports in depth here.
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).
Whether this kind of surveillance is currently widespread or not, Soghoian and Stamm's paper underscores the deeply flawed mess that the web certificate model has become. It's time to design something better.