Raising the Shields – Part 2: Certificate Patrol

In the majority of cases, https provides privacy and security by encrypting and decrypting data traffic to and from a web server. The mechanism is based on web server SSL (Secure Socket Layer) certificates and public/private keys that are exchanged during connection establishment. Data sent to the other end is always encrypted using the public key of the recipient. Decryption is only possible with the corresponding private key on the other side. This kind of encryption works as the private keys are never exchanged and hence nobody intercepting the data on its way from source to destination can decrypt the information. There is one weakness, however, most people are not aware about.

How does a web browser know that the web server's public key was actually sent from the web server and not from someone that sits in between the web browser and the server? For this purpose the web server sends an SSL certificate during the https session establishment that is signed by a certificate authority the web browser trusts. To get such a signed certificate a web site owner has to register with a certificate authority that web browsers trust. Unfortunately, there are a huge number of certificate authorities today that are trusted by web browsers and many are operated by what some would consider less than trusted entities. And here lies the weakness.

If a man in the middle gets hold of such a certificate authority he can create certificates for any domain on the fly. As a web browser does not check if the certificate authority for a web site has changed since it was last visited this goes unnoticed and opens the door to anyone that is able to perform a man in the middle attack with traffic diversion.

This is where Certificate Patrol, a Firefox add-on comes in. It stores certificates it has previously seen and compares them against the certificate presented by a website it has come across before. If they don't match a warning is shown to the user with the details. There are valid reasons for websites to exchange their certificates such as for example once their validity time has expired. This is also checked and Certificate Patrol informs the user that the certificate change was likely o.k. due to this reason. I've been using the add-on for quite some time now and it has become quite refined these days. I haven't come across fraudulent certificates so far but it feels good to know that I would see it should it ever happen. What's missing at this point is something similar in Thunderbird for ensuring the certificates for POP3 and SMTP email communication are not tampered and a similar solution for my smartphone.

Agreed, creating certificates on the fly and inserting oneself in the
traffic stream is far from easy to do but I would not be surprised if
this was part of the toolkit of certain three-letter agencies.