Let's Encrypt Free Certificates' Success Challenges SSL/TLS Industry

NEWS ANALYSIS: The free security certificate effort backed by the Linux Foundation achieves a major milestone with one million free certificates, but are all those free users actually secure?  

Let's Encrypt 2

Let's Encrypt hit a major milestone on March 8 by providing its one millionth free SSL/TLS certificate.

The Let's Encrypt certificate service was first announced in November 2014 as an effort to help expand the use and availability of cryptographic security for Websites. In April 2015, Let's Encrypt became a Linux Foundation Collaborative Project, with the first publicly available free certificates issued in December 2015.

"We launched with the capacity to support issuance rates on the very high end," Josh Aas, Internet Security Research Group executive director, told eWEEK. "One million certificates in three months seemed within the realm of possibility, but it also seemed possible that it would take us most of 2016. We are very happy that the former was the case."

While Let's Encrypt has enjoyed early success, the effort has raised some questions about security and authenticity. Kevin Bocek, vice president of security strategy and threat intelligence at cyber-security company Venafi, commented that Let's Encrypt is all about making turning on encryption easy.

"More encryption is great but the ease of obtaining certificates automatically can be riskier," Bocek said. "We've already seen phishing sites and other attacks use Let's Encrypt certificates."

The accusation that Let's Encrypt has been abused by bad actors, like phishers, is a question that Aas does not shy away from and he defends the integrity of the Let's Encrypt effort.

"When you look at the big picture, most good technology also helps bad actors in some way," Aas said. "Bad actors use computers, server software (e.g. Apache), ISPs, and ad networks to do what they do. They can also use Let's Encrypt, though it's a small group."

There is also an additional built-in mitigation for Let's Encrypt in that the service only offers 90 day SSL/TLS certificates. That is, the free certificates expire after 90 days, which can potentially help to minimize the longer term risk of an errant certificate.

"We are only issuing certificates with 90 day lifetimes, and that will be the case for the foreseeable future," Aas said. "Dealing with certificates manually is inefficient and error-prone. We want to strongly encourage automation. And if your system is automated then it doesn't really matter how long the certificate lifetimes are."

When it comes to trust, the type of certificate that Let's Encrypt offers is something that is known as a Domain Validated (DV) certificate. A DV certificate is the most basic form of SSL/TLS certificate and does not require comprehensive authentication in order for a certificate to be issued. One of the leading organizations in the SSL/TLS space is the Certificate Authority Security Council (CASC), which is a group formed in 2013 by the world's leading SSL/TLS issuers.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

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