W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > public-wsc-wg@w3.org > July 2007

Re: ACTION-240 :TLS errors...

From: Stephen Farrell <stephen.farrell@cs.tcd.ie>
Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2007 01:16:04 +0100
Message-ID: <4692CFC4.9000100@cs.tcd.ie>
To: Serge Egelman <egelman@cs.cmu.edu>
CC: W3C WSC Public <public-wsc-wg@w3.org>

Serge Egelman wrote:
> Okay, hopefully this is better articulated:
> Everyone who has said something about this issue is thinking as an IT
> expert.  

That is true, but seems to ignore the mail that started this
thread. If you want to disucss a different topic (e.g. how to
properly display PKI information to end-users, then that belongs
in a thread of its own IMO).

Let's try this way, ignoring SSC for now (since I personally
don't know what I think is best there). If a UI never displays
any detailed TLS error, (the supposition of this thread) then
no PKI details will be presented as a result of such errors.
Therefore some bad actors will be forced to use real certs,
either by acquiring them (paying or hacking a CA) or else
by hacking a web site. In each case, the hacker leaves more
trace and accountability is improved due to the use of the PKI
(unless the hacker can steal a private key from a web site, at
which point the trace is very indirect) . That is IMO
unequivocally a good thing.

Your second argument seems to be about risk. I think that is
also misplaced. We here can discuss vulnerabilities and
countermeasures, but we cannot know, other than in the most
general terms about actual risk. For example, the W3C site
seems to be a popular target for attack, though it is not
involved in commerce. The recent reports of hacks against
Estonia were also apparently not dependent on commerce. So,
there are too many unknowns for us to do a real risk analysis.

Lastly, below you'll see some blow-by-blow responses. Its
probably counter productive to continue in that style further,
but I wanted to try show why I (coming from the PKI technology
side) find it hard to deal with how you're framing the
discussion here. I'm really not trying to beat-up on you, but
the way you've phrased these messages makes it very hard to
keep the discussion on track IMO.


 > You're not thinking like an end-user.

Fair enough. But neither are you, end users would not raise
the revocation related issues you have.

> If you encounter a website that contains an expired certificate, what do
> you do?  

Doesn't happen in the posited future. You only encouter sites where
TLS fails or works - see the start of the thread.

 > I highly doubt you apply one decision (i.e. "continue to
> website" or "go somewhere else") to all such situations consistently.
> This is a very subjective decision.  As an expert, we see these warnings
> and then take other factors into account when determining whether to
> submit information.  

That is not where we started, which was to recommend that such
warnings are not dislayed.

 > The average end-user does not do this.  The average
> end-users will see the warning, glance at the page in the background,
> and if the site "looks" authentic, they will ignore the warning.  The
> average user cannot make an informed decision in this situation because
> they do not have the domain knowledge (no pun intended).
> In such situations, you need warnings to interrupt the user's task, and
> convince them that proceeding really isn't a good idea.  

No, "need" above is wrong. You can block sites. For some, and arguably
all (non SSC), errors that is defensible and involves no warnings.

 > However, for
> such warnings to be effective, they need to be used rarely!  Otherwise
> you start having to deal with habituation, and we begin training users
> to ignore these new warnings.

Correct, but not necessarily relevant.

> Therefore, if we're going to talk about making effective SSL warning
> messages, we need to narrow down the situations in which they'll be
> used.  Sure, you're absolutely right, there are risks to visiting sites
> with SSCs, I'm not disputing that at all.  However, the probability of a
> user being exposed to these risks are miniscule (all things being
> relative).  

I can see no basis on which to make that last statement.

 > We need to put all of these threats in perspective when
> determining when to display warning messages, because again, if we warn
> about every conceivable risk, the warnings become useless.

Ignores the point of the thread.

> Think of it this way: if you see a warning, as an expert, that asks you
> to make a very subjective decision, how reasonably well should we expect
> the average AOL user to make that same decision?  Will the average user
> inspect the certificate?  Does the average user even know what a
> certificate is?  If we're going to be forcing users to look at
> certificates, we've already failed.  So this means that we should
> automate as much as possible.  This begs the next question: which of
> these risks are realistic enough that we want to block access?

Ignores the point of the thread.

> If people want to advocate for blocking or warning about every site 

So far, it seems like you're the only one arguing for any TLS related
warnings (wrt revocation).

 > that
> uses an SSC 

SSCs do need separate consideration.

 > or an expired cert,

There are O(100) different possible reasons, in addition to

 > I think you'll quickly find that users
> will either get around the blocking and continue to these sites anyway,

If you mean by falling back to plaintext, sure, that's possible, but
if that's a clincher we should just fold the tent now since it means
that its not possible to display primary SCI in a meaningful way.

> or such sites will all start getting cheap certificates (the $20
> analogy).  

"Analogy" is just careless, low-assurance is not an analogy
but one amongst the various possible reasonable PKI deployment
scenarios. There is plenty of history to back up the fact that
low-assurance is reasonable.

 > While the latter would imply that the warnings are working,
> it also means that we really haven't done anything, we've just shifted
> the problem.  We've forced that class of websites to shell out $20, but
> effectively haven't accomplished much more.

I disagree with you there. We would have more accountability and
would have made it easier to trace the bad guy. Secondly, your argument
there applies to any countermeasure - "if we do <foo> then the bad
actors will simply do <bar>, therefore we shouldn't do <foo>" and is
not IMO good logic.

Secondly, if you've ever dealt with spam, you'll know that not needing
to shell out $20 is bad if it benefits a bad actor.

> This is where we seem to disagree: whether an SSC is as secure as a
> low-grade certificate.  

"low-grade" means what? "low-assurance" has a well known non-pejorative
meaning here, but not synonymous with "bad" as you seem to be implying.

 > There are two main differences: the domain
> ownership verification and the ability to do revocation.  

I don't think that's all. There are high-assurance PKIs
that don't involve DNS name verification of any sort (e.g.
corporate PKIs). There are low assurance PKIs that support
revocation models that are as good as much higher-assurance
CAs (e.g. most all of them:-). There are PKIs where both are
reasonable but where many other things are odd (e.g. bridge

So I see no basis on which to make your assertion.

 > So far no one
> has made a convincing argument that passing a domain ownership test to
> purchase a low-grade certificate is sufficient to prove that a site is
> not malicious.  

Of course not. Making such an assertion would be silly. Passing such
a DNS test improves accountability, which is different.

 > Regarding revocation, if the owner of an SSC has reason
> to believe that it's compromised, 

Certs are not compromised. Private keys are exposed, or else public
keys are factored. The latter is ignorable in this context, the
former usually undetected. (Discussing in the face of such
inaccuracy is hard.)

 > they can just generate a new one
> (whereas the owner of a CA-issued cert would fill out a revocation
> request and request a new one).  

I see no point in that statement.

 > Sure, a lazy person might not
> regenerate the SSC, but then again a lazy person might not fill out the
> revocation request either.  

I see no point in that statement.

 > I'm also not sure there are any convincing
> arguments that the private keys are going to be kept safer in either
> scenario either (I'm not talking about the CA root key).

I see no point in that statement.

> Anyway, this is tangential to my main point, which was we need to be
> focusing on what to display to the user.  Before whining about all the

"Whining?" That doesn't help with discussion.

> possible risks for every PKI-related scenario, you need to be asking
> yourself: What is the likelihood of this threat? 

See above wrt risk analysis.

 > If we cannot automate
> the decision (allow/deny) and must display a dialog box to the user,
> will grandma be able to make the right decision?

So, you start by ignoring the fact that this thread is about
automating handling of TLS errors and the end by chastising someone
(who?) for whining about something that grandma won't understand and
for which no one else is arguing.
Received on Tuesday, 10 July 2007 00:14:17 UTC

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