Certificate Authorities Aim to Improve Identity Assurance

A group of leading SSL/TLS Certificate Authorities are working on the London Protocol effort to figure out what's needed to improve certificate identity assurance.

SSL/TLS certificates

The Certificate Authority Security Council (CASC) announced a new effort dubbed the "London Protocol" on June 27 in a bid to help improve identity assurance for web security certificates.

The London Protocol benefits from the support of multiple Certificate Authority (CA) vendors, including Comodo CA, Entrust Datacard, GlobalSign, GoDaddy and Trustwave. The London Protocol is a multi-stage effort that will be implemented over a 10-month period that aims to help understand how attackers are misusing SSL/TLS certificates and what the CAs can do to help minimize risks.

"In general, the CAs have not really worked together to share data in the past to really provide a higher level of of identity assurance for certificates," Chris Bailey, vice president of strategy and business development for certificate services at Entrust Datacard, told eWEEK. "What we want to do is get together and make sure we have a way to provide a consistent method to continuously improve on these identity certificates that show organization information, so they can continue to be relied upon in the future."

The CASC itself is a group of the largest SSL/TLS Certificate Authorities in the world that was formed in February 2013. The CASC has been actively working in the years since to move web security forward with multiple initiatives to help improve the trust and efficacy of certificate security.

For SSL/TLS certificates, there are broadly speaking three primary types: Domain Validated (DV), Organization Validated (OV) and Extended Validation (EV). DV certificates are the easiest to attain and only require a minimal amount of validation, while OV and EV have more rigorous requirements. Bailey said that the London Protocol's focus will initially be on helping to improve identity assurance for OV and EV, not DV certificates.

EV certificates also benefit from visual identifiers in some web browsers that help end users better understand the identity of a given website. Bailey said that the London Protocol isn't about changing how SSL/TLS certificate icons are shown in web browsers. Rather, what the effort is focused on is making sure that the identity that's presented in the certificate can be relied upon. The actual specific steps that the CAs will be taking to improve identity assurances is not something that is entirely clear yet.

"The premise behind the London Protocol is ultimately for us to find out what we need to do," Bailey said.

Bailey explained that as part of the London Protocol, participating CAs will work to understand what the issues are and then come up with potential procedures and methods to tackle specific type of threat vectors. 

CAs are already required to adhere to the CA Browser (CAB) Forum Baseline requirements for certificate issuance. Bailey said that the London Protocol will be looking at requirements that go above and beyond the baseline to improve the identity and the trust of certificates.

Certificate Transparency

Among the other efforts to help improve SSL/TLS integrity is the Certificate Transparency logging (CT-logs) effort that Google launched in 2015. Bailey explained that with CT logs, SSL/TLS certificates are logged and presented to the public, enabling organizations to potentially identify any mis-issuance.

Bailey said that the London Protocol in contrast is looking to verify that the information in certificates has been verified in ways that help to limit abuse and potential fraud before the certificate is issued.

Doug Beattie, vice president of product management at GlobalSign, said that a core part of the London Protocol will be to have new data sharing mechanisms across the CAs to collaborate and share information on certificate issuance security issues.

"It is going to be really important to understand how abuses of certificates happen, whether it's primarily website hacks or whether people are getting them for malicious purposes to begin with," Beattie told eWEEK. "I think understanding the motivation of the attackers on what types of scams and malicious things they are doing will help us to improve upfront authentication and validation."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.