Restore the right to privacy with self-signed certificates

If we can no longer trust the certification authorities, then we'll have to secure the Internet ourselves

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The problem is that when Firefox throws up huge warnings and requires three clicks to accept the certificate, users are going to run away as fast as they can. In a perfect world, that's how it should work, because that certificate can't be traced to a trusted entity like GeoTrust or Thawte or another valid CA.

However, if it is established that valid CA keys are no longer private, then self-signed certificates would seem to be the way to go. For financial, legal, corporate, political, and private communications that need to be secure, the creation and maintenance of a private CA and the issuance of private certificates becomes a viable -- and maybe the only -- option. Instead of distributing root CA certificates and maintaining certificate revocation lists at the OS level, every company would have its own root cert, allowing clients to trust the certificates they issue.

This is already the case for internal security in many corporations and infrastructures, as many shops use private certificates within the network. However, within that closed-loop system, root certificate distribution to internal hosts is relatively simple. On a public scale, such as for Internet websites and applications, relying on self-signed certificates would be nowhere near as easy.

Frankly, it would make a huge mess of logistics and worrisome user acceptance. New methods would need to be created to make sure that client systems could handle a deluge of root certificates rather than the relatively small collection of trusted root CAs that are currently maintained, and secure methods of distributing root certificates to users would need to be developed.

It's a poor design and realistically unsustainable, but it would be more secure than what we have now. If the keys to your stock brokerage site were compromised, it would only affect traffic to and from that site alone, not hundreds of thousands or millions of sites, as is the case for a global root CA. It would compartmentalize SSL encryption, and that would ultimately be a good thing, but it would come at a heavy price on all sides.

Of course, if SSL/TLS truly does have a backdoor implemented from the get-go, then all this would be for naught -- the whole thing is a fraud.

The entirety of existing SSL communications and global root CAs starts and ends with trust. We trust that our OS vendor and our browser are maintaining accurate lists of root CAs. We trust that certificate revocation lists are being maintained. We trust that the companies that issue those certificates do not give away the keys by hook or by crook. We trust that our private communications are private.

At some level, it's all trust. Once that's gone, everything falls apart.

This story, "Restore the right to privacy with self-signed certificates," was originally published at Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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