Category Archives: PKI

Microsoft tries to address PKI issues in IE11 (SmartScreen and SNDS)

Digital certificate is widely used and the Internet cannot work without it. However, PKI (the framework digital certificates based on) has lots of issues. Last year in ISO SC27 meeting at ENISA there was a special meeting on PKI. Many issues are only raised without a conclusion, same as most issues brought international meetings.

Microsoft with a 10% – 20% footprint (depends on which report ) of browser market is taking steps in managing this madness. In a recent blog post, “A novel method in IE11 for dealing with fraudulent digital certificates” explain their strategy. I think Microsoft action is very responsible and will help to mitigate issues with fraudulent digital certificates. Certificate and its associated private key is very sensitive and must be handled with security in mind. In my over 10 years audit experiences, I had seen many engineers or administrators treated private key same as a configuration file. In most enterprise, there is general lack of documented procedures or best practises to administrate digital certificate. Malicious attackers may abuse this weakness and create fraudulent certificates.

In IE11, Microsoft uses SmartScreen Filter to detect and report high risk uses of certificate. Three scenarios are explained in the blog post:

1. A website is using a certificate that is capable of being used as a subordinate CA. This would indicate the certificate has been issued wrongly

2. If a website suddenly presents a different certificate only to a certain region where a different CA issued the certificate. This might indicate a possible MITM attack in a specific country or region

3. There was a sudden and significant change in the fields a CA includes in certificates it issues. For example, omission or change in the OCSP responder location. This would indicate a CA was either compromised, or has not followed standard operating procedures.”

There is a practicality issues with item 2 above with a 24×7 website. Suppose Apple adm update the SSL certificate on midnight, APAC region users will be the first batch of users using this updated and also different certificate. Will IE11 warn user regarding this new SSL certificate although it is updated due to normal refresh? I hope Microsoft will add intelligent to their detection algorithm and take consideration of the effective date of old SSL cert.

Another important control Microsoft implemented is ” domain registrants could be notified by email when new certificates with their domain names appear in our database. The domain registrant would have the option to report suspicious certificates to us and notify the CA to revoke the suspicious certificate.” In short, Microsoft is sharing the uses of certificate of specific domain to who claimed to the domain owner. The domain owner will need to take action accordingly. This is a responsive strategy by increasing transparency. (There is a new trend in security industry on sharing info and responding timely, in additional to defence in depth principle. Will write on this trend later when I finish reading “Responsive Security” by Meng-Chow Kang)

It is a prefect design in theory. My first question is who read such warning email! Is the email recipient understand the risks when reported by SNDS? Time will tell.