State of art certificates (Whom do you trust?)

In 2003, I wrote a short article for 2600 magazine, where I disclosed how I got proper SSL certificates from various certificate authorities using a mail client, browser and a fax machine. Some of them were even for free (i.e. untraceable back to me).

It seems, that this idea is kind of revisited now. So, here’s my article from 2003.

Whom do you trust?

Issues of several CA’s authentication mechanisms

                      (c) 2003 Juraj Bednar  

“Security is a process”, says a common security saying. I would also like
to add, that security is about processes. In this article, you will also
see, how security of different organisations affects your own security.

Most of the web communication in today’s “secure” Internet is protected
by a set of protocols defined in standard, called Transport Layer Security
(the successor of SSL: Secure Sockets Layer, developed by Netscape). While
the protocol itself is quite strong and the data are protected by mostly
safe ciphers and technologies, there is one weak point, like in many
asymmetric cryptosystems: distribution of keys (or PKI, short for Public
Key Infrastructure).

Asymmetric cryptosystem protects its users against a passive attack
(sniffing). Using Diffie-Hellman key exchange or RSA, it is very
difficult to eavesdrop on someone’s traffic. There is one widely
known attack, known as Man in the Middle. Using this technique, the
communication channel is being actively attacked. Parties, while thinking
they are communicating with each other, are effectively talking to an
attacker, who acts as a middle-man.

A solution to this is a safe distribution of keys. If both parties know
each other’s public key, they can safely communicate. So the problem with
today’s asymmetric cryptosystems is not about ciphers - they are quite
strong. It is mostly about key distribution. PKI comes as a solution to
this, where communicating parties own only a few public keys of so called
Certification Authorities (or CAs). These are trusted third parties,
who pick an identity and a public key of a user or organisation, put them
together and “stamp” them with their digital signature. When you start
communication with someone, he presents you with a valid certificate.
You (or better your browser - if we are talking about web) check the
digital signature, the name of a party, etc. If you trust the CA, that
issued the certificate, you can safely communicate. This last “if”
is the big one.

When I wanted a certificate for my own website (, I did
my own research. The result was quite shocking. I was able to trick
lot of them to issue me a certificate, when they really shouldn’t.

The case of RIPE

I was quite shocked, when I found an authority, which did authorisation
using a whois registry. The process looks like this: You fill a form
on their webpage (of course using plain unprotected http. Why would a
CA use https?), submit CSR (certificate signing request) they’ll send
you a confirmation e-mail, you click the link and choose, which of the
contacts (administrative, technical or zone) should they contact. They
send a mail to the contact you choose, after clicking on a link in the
e-mail, they issue a signed certificate.

Now, wait a moment. There are some questions to be asked. How is a contact
in a whois database meant to authenticate someone over Internet? How
do we know he is authoritative to decide, if someone should issue a
certificate? Do they know, that most domains in RIPE do not have mnt-by
entry, which protects the contact by password, or you have to use PGP to
make changes? Anyone can make changes to contacts without mnt-by. How
could an unprotected e-mail that can be sniffed on the way be trusted
as a way to determine whether to issue a certificate?

The CA is on They have quite low prices and
even issue free 6-months certificates. They are in MS Trust Root (happily
not in Mozilla), so anyone with MSIE 5.01 or higher trusts them, unless
they decided not to. One of my friends, who operates an Internet shop
wanted an SSL certificate, so I told her, that I’ll try to get one for
her. I explained, that I’m doing some sort of research and I want to
trick the authority to issue it without using access to her accounts,
web space (I hosted the site for her) and without she or her colleagues
helping me to. So I could be literally anyone, but in this case, that
was part of my research, I had the permission, so I did not break law.

So first, I changed her contact in RIPE (which of course did not have the
mnt-by entry) to my e-mail address. I also added the changed line with my
address and correct date of change (these are not added automatically by
ripe). The entry was changed by a robot. She did not get an e-mail about
this change. Then I generated a key, a CSR, filled the form, got the mail,
clicked on the link. Then the page said, that they could not contact the
RIPE registry, so they filled the contacts with hostmaster, postmaster
and webmaster aliases of the particular domain. While I could receive
mail for these addresses (I am an administrator of her mail domain),
I decided to be cheeky and mailed back with my ticket number. I sent
the whois registry entry with all the contacts (including the changed
line, which said, that I changed the entry the very same day to my
own address!). In few minutes, the contacts on the webpage were set to
what I mailed them, I chose my e-mail address, got another mail, clicked
another link and the certificate was issued. I installed the certificate
for her shop and she was quite happy. I was happy, because I used no
power over her web space, domain or any administrative power. In fact,
to issue this certificate, I only used one e-mail address. That makes
man in the middle attack quite simple. It cost me no money, so if I
used some anonymous access (like driving to some random city and using
wifi with changed MAC address), created mail on some freemail, I would
get a certificate, possibly without the domain owners even noticing this.

Actually performing the man in the middle attack, when you have
certificate, that most of web users trust by default, is very easy
now. You can use Dug Song’s excellent dsniff package. You could rob
someone’s bank account, if the target domain was a bank and they did
not use man in the middle resistant protection (such as secureID, that
digitally signs all parameters of transactions and bank processes it
only when such signature is filled in). You could snoop on someone’s
mail account, if they use webmail to access it. And as the webpage of
this CA perfectly states – it is a matter of minutes.

If your registry provides a way to protect entries in registry (such as
RIPE’s mnt-by), use it. When I looked at banks in my country (which is
otherwise quite advanced in IT), none of them used mnt-by. Protecting
your entries is also a matter of minutes. Do it.

The case of papers

Even before this CA, I found E-BizID, which acts as a reseller for
Comodogroup (which I chose as my own CA later on). They had a 50%
discount on the certificates that time and also issued a 30-days free test
certificates (that were signed by the real authority). I had no idea
how they authenticate sites, so I filled in a form to get a certificate
for my provider’s webmail machine, that I am an admininstrator of. It told me to
fax the Business License to some number. As I filled the form correctly
(stating, who owns the machine, full company name and address) and it
was around Christmas, I just let it be. But later on, I was having a
phone conversation with another administrator from the company and told him,
that they are quite cheap and they should buy the certificate, protecting
their clients. They decided to buy it for another domain name, which
had the same webmail installed. They paid for it, faxed the business
license. We both received the certificate. I got my testing certificate
and they got the real one. Quite interesting.

The question to ask is – is faxing a business license a way to
authenticate and authorise users? In our country, anyone can obtain
anyone’s business license in the court office (the court has a database of
all business licenses). If you want to do a business with someone, you
can go there, request a license, which will tell you, in what field they
are permitted to do business, who owns the company, etc. This business
license (here called “Transcript from business registry”) is the same as
the company owners get. There is no difference. Anyone can get it. That
means, anyone can fax it. That means, anyone can get a certificate.

If this was not the case, I wonder how an American CA could determine,
if the paper that was faxed to them is a real business license of the
particular country. I doubt they knew, what “Vypis z obchodneho registra”,
that I faxed to them even meant. I believe, that if I faxed them some
famous Slovak novel, formatted to look like a business license and
included the name and address of my company, they could not visually tell
the difference and they probably do not employ Slovak language speakers
to see the difference between prose from business licenses. I would
love to be proven wrong.

Domain ownership control

While I did not try other authorities myself, I read about the
process to issue certificate of several others. Some of them want
you to prove ownership of a domain by telling you to create some
file in the webspace of the server. They tell you to create for example with some
particular content. This is one of the better way to authenticate people,
who have control of a domain. However, it is quite funny to use this way,
because CA’s, PKI and TLS are here to protect communicating peers against
known attacks to plaintext http. Seems weird, that they itself rely on
this insecure way of communication to authenticate users. The attacks are
well known – man in the middle attack, DNS spoofing, etc. While this
attack is certainly not the easiest one (the difficult part is to get
access to nameserver or to the physical link between CA and authenticated
domain), it is certainly not impossible. There are well established and
tested tools to do this kind of attack.

The solution?

Some CAs use some combination of these techniques. The best technique
I have seen is the requirement to come to a local branch office of a
CA, show your business license, ID card or passport, driving license.
The business license is checked with the court over Internet, this also
says who can act on behalf of a company, he is authenticated using ID card,
his presence is recorded on a tape.

However, I believe, that current situation in Microsoft’s browser is
far from using this approach. I believe, that MS Trust Root is built
more on business contracts, than on security standards. Microsoft and
security. Sounds a bit stupid in one sentence.

I believe there should be some independent body (in form of organisation
like IANA and ICANN, but not controlled by US government), which
administers some common trust root. Certificates are issued to CAs
with approval of local government organisation (in our country, it is
National Security Office, which approves and disapproves the existence
and operation of open CAs and accredited CAs). You can personally
choose, which countries’ CAs do you believe. All of the CAs should
require a personal presence to authenticate and authorise the right to
a certificate.

Also the weak point in current implementations of x509 is, that you can
not easily specify, for which purpose you trust certain CAs. The purpose
(web site authentication, S/MIME mail, …) is on the certificate,
but you can not specify, that you trust certain CAs for anything (for
banking purposes, …), but another one only for freemail accounts
and discussion boards authentication. It is not as easy in current web
implementations anyway.

If you run a bank’s webserver, tell your users, which CA you use (by
postal mail) and tell them to always check the certificate. My bank
does this (surprisingly), transferring all the liabilities to the user
(Someone robbed your account? You did not check the certificate? Oh,
what a pity, it is your problem, not ours). But if the bank recommends
use of some particular user agent (usually MSIE), and do not tell users to
delete all the “suspicious” CAs, they are liable for the client’s money
(and for the loss of it).

Maybe it is time, to ask again: Whom do you trust? Do you trust Microsoft
or AOL? Do you trust CAs, they trust (for some reason, probably
compensated by lots of money)? Being a well known CA does not imply,
it is a secure one.


Written by Juraj Bednár //