Is Mozillas Policy Bad for the Web?

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-08-20 Print this article Print

Nat Tuck doesn't like this and thinks it's actually bad for the web. He makes allusions to net neutrality arguments and says that Mozilla's policy is not open. Tuck figures that he knows what he's getting with such a site and, while it may be worth putting up an informational message showing that the sites "could not be authenticated" there should be nothing to impede the user's progress toward that page. Tuck doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would ever have tried Internet Explorer, but in principle he seems to object even to its less intrusive warning.

Tuck has gotten some support in the blogosphere; A Slashdot thread on it got 800-something comments, with much agreement to varying degrees. I think most of the reaction has focused on the fact that the overwhelming majority of users, unlike Tuck, don't know what they are getting and need to have their hands held. Even if it is more "open" to let self-signed certs through, it's better that users have phishing protection, and that protection is harder if you don't trust certificate authorities.

CAs are not 100% trustworthy of course. They make mistakes now and then, such as giving certificates to malware authors. In many cases merely confirming that the owner of the cert is who they claim to be doesn't do anything. Sure, if the owner is "PayPal Inc. (US)" then most of us know who and what they are. If the owner is "HyperGlobalMegaNet Inc." then is it? Who are they? Are they trustworthy? The real value though, comes when the self-signed certificate says that the owner is "PayPal Inc. (US)". In that case, anti-phishing protection clearly can call shenanigans on it and tell the user there's a problem.

But more generally about self-signed certificates, the issue is that nobody is vouching for the identity. Browser authors have made the policy decision that identity is a big issue and it really can't be checked with self-signed certs. As Michael Barrett of PayPal says, " the case of self-signed certificates it's almost impossible to see how any technology can disambiguate between legitimate uses and criminal ones."

I totally agree with Barrett, but I'm going to agree a little with Tuck as well: Firefox goes completely overboard here. They don't just warn you about the dangers of self-signed certs, they nag you about them. Over and over again. Internet Explorer 7's approach seems much more reasonable, especially since they keep a warning up there while you're using the site.

We've already seen that Firefox 3.1, in the works for a while now, will make some important changes, and I think toning down the self-signed certificate process would be a fair one.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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