FTC Recognizes Value of Trust Established by SSL and Digital Certificates Arrow to Content

April 14, 2014 | Leave a Comment

Attacks on digital certificates and trusted connections drive FTC to action

Recognizing that the trust established by Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and digital certificates plays an important role in everyday life, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought charges against Fandango and Credit Karma for failing to protect this trust. Both companies failed to validate digital certificates used for SSL/Transport Layer Security (TLS) connections in their mobile applications. The FTC acknowledged that these failures allow attackers to circumvent the trust established by digital certificates and gain access to users’ confidential personal and financial information. Once this trust is compromised, attackers can redirect traffic to an untrusted site, and the users’ applications cannot detect that traffic has been diverted. Ironically, digital certificates and SSL/TLS secure connections are designed to thwart these Man-in-the-Middle (MiTM) attacks.

The FTC illustrates how a comprised or fake digital certificate can be used for MiTM attacks against unsuspecting users.

The importance of the settlement is not that businesses must deal with another compliance requirement. Instead, the FTC is reinforcing the fact that securing the trust established by digital certificates is critical. The FTC’s action underscores what others have already found:

  • Microsoft concluded that “PKI is under attack.”
  • In its 2013 fourth quarter threat report, McAfee reported that malware that misuses digital certificates increased 52% over the third quarter.

Protecting trust is so important that no business or government can ignore it. A single compromised certificate or application that fails to validate certificates can make all the other security controls useless.

A fake certificate purporting to be for GoDaddy’s email service could allow an attacker to masquerade as GoDaddy if applications don’t check if a certificate is trusted.

Attacks on mobile applications that fail to validate digital certificates are nothing new. In an article published earlier this year, Netcraft reported that it had found dozens of fake digital certificates deployed across the Internet. Unlike many attacks using compromised digital certificates, the fake certificates that Netcraft found probably targeted users of mobile applications—40% of which, like Fandango’s and Mobile Karma’s applications, failed to validate the trust established by legitimate digital certificates. While the FTC has started its action with Fandango and Credit Karma, significantly wider holes in SSL and digital certificate security have been reported. In February 2014, for example, Apple patched Mac OS X and iOS because both failed to validate digital certificates for SSL/TLS—an issue that could have been exploited by MiTM attacks.

With Gartner predicting that 50% of network attacks will use SSL by 2017, enterprises must protect the trust established by digital certificates. The FTC provides some basic recommendations that all mobile developers should follow. In addition, developers should evaluate security, including the validation of digital certificates, with the help of a third party. Beyond this, organizations must secure and protect the keys and certificates that establish trust for mobile applications, web browsers, and the thousands of applications behind the firewall. Although every organization depends on these applications, they create a huge surface area of attack.

In response to the rise in attacks on keys and certificates, Forrester recommends that organizations:

  • Gain visibility into threats. Only about half (52%) of organizations know how many keys and certificates are in use, how those keys and certificates are used, and who is responsible for them. You can’t control what you don’t know you have.
  • Enforce policy to establish norms and detect anomalies. Once an organization has gained visibility into its key and certificate inventory, it can begin to enforce policies and establish a norm. This makes detecting anomalies easier, whether they’re accidental policy violations by a well-intentioned developer or a malicious attack.
  • Automate key and certificate functions to gain control and reduce risk. A typical large enterprise has thousands of keys and certificates to secure and protect. Work smarter, not harder, by automating security for processes such as key generation, certificate requests, monitoring for changes and anomalies, and other related tasks. This automation not only streamlines and centralizes these tasks, but also helps to establish the necessary controls to reduce risk, shrink the threat surface of attacks, and help the organization respond to attacks faster. Automation and control are part of establishing a norm that can be monitored for possible anomalies and attacks.
  • Analyze data to gain intelligence. Analysis of data gained from securing keys and certificates will provide a wealth of information and insight that can help to identify opportunities to reduce risk. By looking at the data generated, organizations can spot patterns of potentially suspicious activity or anomalies that require further investigation. Reports may also help identify keys and certificates that may be problematic, such as those that are about to expire or are no longer needed.

In line with these recommendations from Forrester, Venafi TrustAuthority enables organizations to quickly gain visibility, fix vulnerabilities, and establish policies for keys and certificates. Venafi TrustForceautomates key and certificate functions to further eliminate the opportunity for compromise and enable organizations to enforce policies and remediate security incidents. IT security teams must start by gaining visibility into how keys and certificates are used, fixing vulnerable certificates, and enforcing policies to protect the trust upon which their business depends—from their mobile applications back to the data center.


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