Today I’m going to continue a series of blog posts called “Deep dives into topics recently written about by people named Eric.” Last time it was Eric Lawrence, and today our jumping off point will be Eric Rescorla’s blog.
Eric Rescorla (aka ekr) recently wrote a fantastic and comprehensive blog post on EU regulation regarding server authentication certificates (called QWACs) and their relationship to Extended Validation (EV) certificates. There’s one part of that post in particular that I know I’m going to end up referencing a lot, because I had been meaning to write it up myself: why EV certificates (or QWACs) do not defend a site against a malicious domain validation (DV) certificate for the same domain.
I won’t rehash Eric’s post and in fact I’m not going to discuss QWACs at all in this post; I’ll scope this to EV certificates. Eric’s post is a great reference for background on QWACs and EV, and if you want more background on EV certificates, I recommend Section 2.2 of this paper. Note also that, if you’re not familiar with the term “DV certificate”, that just refers to a regular TLS certificate – the kind that you can get for free from a CA Let’s Encrypt or generally what you’d get in the cheapest tier from any commercial CA. It’s called a “DV certificate” because all you need to do to get one is validate that you control the domain name that appears in the certificate.
In this post, I want to dig into the common misconception that EV certificates protect against an attacker who can hijack a domain validation attempt to obtain a malicious DV certificate from a CA. An attacker might be able to obtain a malicious DV certificate via a BGP hijack or manipulating a DNS response, among other ways. Some people view EV certificates as a remedy to the problem that DV certificates can be obtained too easily by a malicious attacker.
The reasoning behind this misconception goes as follows. Obtaining an EV certificate involves more stringent identity verification than DV, and thus an attacker who can obtain a malicious DV certificate for a victim domain cannot necessarily obtain a malicious EV certificate for that domain. If all the attacker can obtain is a malicious DV certificate, and if users expect to see the browser EV UI when loading the victim domain, then the attack is foiled. The user will realize that something is amiss due to the missing EV UI, and they will not proceed to interact with the page.
- The attacker could use a malicious DV certificate to intercept the initial page load. Cookies or other sensitive data could be sent to the attacker in this initial request before the user even has a chance to see that there is no EV UI in the browser. It’s game over before the page even loads.
And there are many more attack vectors too. (See the classic, though perhaps a bit dated, paper Beware of Finer-Grained Origins.) Clearly, using an EV certificate on your website does not protect you from an attacker who can obtain a malicious DV certificate for your domain.
DV is pretty good, actually
Before I go further, I want to note that DV certificates are actually pretty good, these days – and rapidly getting more secure. I would bet that most industry security teams are not losing sleep over the threat of a malicious DV certificate compared to all the other threats to worry about. The recent advances in DV security are really a whole other topic to write about, but, in a nutshell, Certificate Transparency and CAA have made a big difference, with more security improvements on the horizon like multi-perspective domain validation and RPKI.
But what if…
The web platform is mutable, and for someone who is worried about malicious DV certificates, it’s reasonable to ask whether we could introduce some changes or new features in the web platform that could insulate websites using EV certificates from the threats of a malicious DV certificate.
Warning: bad ideas ahead! As in many of my other blog posts, the rest of this post describes a thought experiment that I do not endorse as a concrete proposal. The point of exploring the thought experiment is to show that while perhaps theoretically possible, it would be a formidable project to undertake.
The first step in this thought experiment is that EV certificates and DV certificates would need to be separated by origin. Perhaps we would need to expand the notion of origin from (scheme, host, port) to (scheme, host, port, EV/DV), where the last component is a bit indicating whether the certificate used to load resources in the origin was EV or DV. This assumes that all EV certificates are equally trustworthy, which may or may not be a reasonable assumption, but let’s go with it for simplicity. This new origin concept would theoretically close off some of the attack vectors discussed above: for example, if a webpage loaded from the EV version of the origin was loaded in one tab and a webpage loaded from the DV version in another, the two would not be able to directly script each other because the browser would now consider them cross-origin.
Speaking of interactions with other origins, we’d need to define a way
to serialize these special EV origins. For example, suppose a page
with an EV origin received a message from another page via
postMessage. To use the
postMessage API securely, message
recipients must validate the origin from which they received the
message, typically by string comparison on the
field. What string should appear in the
message.origin field if the
message comes from an EV versus DV origin? That is, how can an EV
origin receiving a message validate that the message did not come from
a DV origin? The authors of the now-defunct Suborigins
project faced this same
issue and decided to serialize a suborigin name into the host
component of the origin. I didn’t work on this project myself, but as
I recall, the ramifications of changing origin representation in this
way were never fully worked out. It’s an especially complex
proposition for the idea of EV/DV origins. Presumably DV origins would
be serialized as just scheme, host, and port for backwards
compatibility, with a special serialization just for EV origins – but
this means that any developer validating an origin would need to
remember to use the special EV origin serialization in their
validation check. If they forget to do so, the origin check in
question would be vulnerable to abuse by DV origins. This fail-open
property (if you forget to do the special thing anywhere, you are
vulnerable) is generally a harbinger of bad security outcomes.
A final consideration is that one very important security-critical thing in the web platform is actually not (yet?) isolated by origin, but rather by domain: cookies. If you set a cookie on http://example.com, it will be sent to https://example.com, and vice versa. This means that cookies would not “just work” in this thought experiment of separate EV and DV origins. Cookies are keyed by domain, so a cookie set on https://example.com would be shared between the EV and DV versions of that origin. Since cookies are often used to store sensitive data like authentication tokens, this destroys the security properties we are looking to achieve. Further work on isolating cookies by origin would be necessary for the EV/DV origin proposal to get useful security properties.
There are probably many additional complexities to this origin separation idea that I’m not considering. Overall, it may be theoretically possible, but it is a hugely complex proposition both for browser developers and for web developers who would want to use an EV origin.
Separating identity from TLS
Even if we could offer strong isolation between EV certificates and DV certificates on the web, EV certificates would still retain many suboptimal security implications. Much has been written elsewhere on the downsides of EV. Perhaps most importantly, tying certificate issuance to manual verification processes discourages automated certificate issuance and renewal, which is critical for so many security improvements. (I discussed this at length in my Enigma talk in January.) Much of the discourse around QWACs has focused on separating legal identity from TLS: a TLS certificate can be used to authenticate a domain name and a separate mechanism can be used to establish the legal identity of the domain name. This separation of responsibility is likely to lead to a much healthier future for web security.