April 18, 2014

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My Public Comments to the CA/Browser Forum Organizational Reform Working Group

Today, I submitted public comments to the CA/Browser Forum. CA/B Forum is an industry group started by Certificate Authorities — the companies that sell digital certificates to web sites so that your browser can encrypt your communications and can tell you whether it’s connecting to the genuine site. It is important that CAs do a good job, and there have been several examples of Bad Guys getting fraudulent certificates for major web sites recently. You can read the comments below, or download a pretty PDF version.

Public Comments to the CA/Browser Forum Organizational Reform Working Group
March 30, 2012

I am pleased to respond to the CA/Browser Forum’s request for comments on its plan to establish an Organizational Reform Working Group.[1] For more than a decade, Internet users have relied upon digital certificates to encrypt and authenticate their most valuable communications. Nevertheless, few users understand the technical intricacies of the Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) and the policies that govern it. Their expectations of secure communication with validated third-parties are set by the software that they use on a daily basis–typically web browsers–and by faith in the underlying certificates that are issued by Certificate Authorities (CAs). CAs and browser vendors have therefore been entrusted with critically important processes, and the public reasonably relies on them to observe current best practices and to relentlessly pursue even better practices in response to new threats.

The CA/B Forum emerged after the PKI system on the Internet was already established, but it has become one of the de facto venues for the industry to discuss and define policy standards. Although it began as a mechanism for creating the “Extended Validation” certificate policy standard, it has recently asserted a broader role in defining policy standards for the much larger set of certificates used throughout the industry.[2] The Forum is the industry’s attempt to create a self-regulatory structure that can keep up with the rapid operational developments and security vulnerabilities in this area. It should be commended for its efforts.

Nevertheless, the current organizational structure suffers from at least two major shortcomings. First, the Forum includes no representatives from the public or from CAs’ customers–these are commonly referred to by CAs as “Relying Parties” and “Subscribers,” respectively. This is troubling, given that these are the entities that are most at risk from poor policies or practices. Second, the Forum conducts its business largely in secret, with little public transparency into the process by which policies are developed and implemented. While there may be benefits to keeping some security vulnerability information private for short amounts of time, there is no compelling reason to do most of the Forum’s work in private.

Fortunately, there are indications that the Forum is open to change. The call for comments notes that CA/B Forum will consider, “wider membership and participation,” and “a more open and public process.” The Forum derives its legitimacy from its users and the others in the PKI ecosystem that choose to implement its guidance. A major change in posture in the two areas cited is necessary for it to secure and retain this legitimacy.

Wider membership should include representatives from all parts of the ecosystem, in proportions and with voting authority that allows them to meaningfully represent their interests. As a result of the industry structure, CAs dominate current membership. Some of this is inevitable given that there are simply far more CAs in existence than browsers, but the formal addition of relying parties, subscribers, and perhaps the auditor community would help promote a more diverse and healthy consideration of stakeholder interests. Likewise, the Forum should consider how to structure voting rights to ensure that these interests are appropriately represented the process, and how to encourage new entities that seek to take part.

The processes of the CA/B Forum should be made completely open to the public, absent some compelling reason in individual cases. Most of the rest of the PKI ecosystem, and indeed most policy processes related to the Internet as a whole, are conducted in public due to the broad set of stakeholders involved. The public posture of technical standards groups like the IETF and W3C should be guidance for opening the policy processes at the CA/B Forum. Email discussion lists, draft documents, and face-to-face meetings should all be made significantly more public.

The comments that PayPal has already submitted to the Forum succinctly summarize the need for an, “open, public, multi-stakeholder process.”[3]

If the CA/B forum truly wishes to play a broader role in fostering industry best practices through proposed policies, it must be seen as representative, responsive, and transparent. If it cannot do this, it could fail not only to fulfill that mission but also to provide a dynamic industry-driven alternative to hands-on government intervention. The recent security breaches and revelations of troubling industry practices have not lent confidence to a process that is seen by many as being far too insular. Given the high likelihood of similar headline-grabbing developments in the future, CA/B Forum should change course while it still has that opportunity.

Regards,
Stephen Schultze

Associate Director
Center for Information Technology Policy
Princeton University

[1] The comments and opinions presented here are entirely my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Princeton University, the Center for Information Technology Policy, or any other entity.

[2] “CA/Browser Forum Baseline Requirements for the Issuance and Management of Publicly-Trusted Certificates, v.1.0″ at http://cabforum.org/Baseline_Requirements_V1.pdf

[3] “PayPal supports reform at the CA/Browser Forum” at http://www.thesecuritypractice.com/the_security_practice/2012/03/paypal-supports-reform-at-the-cabrowser-forum.html

Comments

  1. Rick says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with your opinion that CAs dominate the forum, or that CAs are the only parties that need to change their ways. If anything, your proposal for greater power-sharing may spur the CAs to leave CA/B and form their own group. Furthermore, as a user and someone who follows this topic, I’m mightily disappointed by the obstinate behavior of many browser vendors when it comes to following security standards.

    And since when is PayPal a browser vendor OR CA? Since never. They aren’t even listed on the membership page. So why do they even get a seat at the table? Because they’re PayPal, that’s why. So in that regard, I agree with you about the need for greater transparency and reform, and would like to see a LOT more transparency around who exactly is influencing the Forum’s decisions. If PayPal wants to be a member, fine, but right now they give the impression of being a back-door player. It contradicts their message of reform and gives the impression that they are merely making a power play.

    • sjs says:

      The slow progress on getting browsers to doing sensible things in this area is indeed frustrating, and they could force much better practices if they wanted to.

      The Forum is dominated by CAs as a simple matter of fact. There are more than three times as many CAs as browsers. I am told that few browser representatives attend Forum meetings, and those that do rarely speak up.

      From what I hear, PayPal has “observer” status within the Forum, which evidently means they get to do everything but vote. It’s unclear to me why they are the only entity that has been granted this status. I believe that security researchers have requested this status before but been turned down.

      In any case, you’re right that a great deal more transparency is needed… not just marginal concessions like more “observers.”