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.
Let’s Encrypt Free Certificate’s Success Challenges SSL/TLS Industry
“The CASC supports the goal of encrypting all Internet traffic, and recognizes Let’s Encrypt’s efforts to that end,” Dean Coclin, senior director, business development, Symantec, told eWEEK.
Coclin noted that although DV certificates provide encryption and are perfectly fine for a variety of uses, no authentication of the certificate requestor is performed.
“Hence DV certificates should not be used for financial applications or anywhere that PII (personally identifiable information) data is provided,” Coclin said.
Let’s Encrypt’s Aas did not disagree that there are shortcomings with DV certificates and the CA (Certificate Authority) system in general, but he emphasized that the system can do a lot to protect people. In his view, most sites should have moved to encryption by default on the Web years ago.
“Working with the existing system is the only way we’re going to encrypt the entire web now,” Aas said. “We can’t afford to wait another decade plus for an improved solution to replace the CA system.”
DigiCert, which is a leading CA, also sees Let’s Encrypt in a somewhat positive light. Flavio Martins, vice president of operations at DigiCert, commented that for Websites that are not commercial in nature, where personally identifiable or financial data is not exchanged, strong assertions of identity, such as those found in Extended Validation (EV) certificates, are not as critical.
DigiCert sells and manages Organization Validated (OV) and Extended Validation (EV) certificates, both of which require the Website owner to provide information that can help to verify trust and authenticity, before a certificate is issued.
Martins noted that from what he has seen in the Let’s Encrypt community, many individuals are looking for encryption for personal sites or non-commercial projects. For the Web operators using SSL/TLS certificates for these types of sites, encryption enhances online privacy in making sure that data is no longer flowing in clear text across the Web.
“Let’s Encrypt is having a positive impact with these sites in advancing encryption everywhere, and we certainly think that increasing the use of encryption on the web is a positive step,” Martins told eWEEK.
The goal of having encryption more broadly adopted on the Web, with the use of secured HTTPS Everywhere is at the heart of Let’s Encrypt mission. Aas noted that, according to statistics from Mozilla, in December 2015, 40 percent of Websites and 65 percent of transactions used HTTPS.
“We want to see those numbers go to 100 percent—that’s our bottom line,” Aas said. “It’s what we really care about. Everything we do supports us in reaching this goal.”
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist