intelligently designing trust

For the past week, every security expert’s been talking about Comodo-Gate. I find it fascinating: Comodo-Gate goes to the core of how we handle trust and how web architecture evolves. And in the end, this crisis provides a rare opportunity.

warning signs

Last year, Chris Soghoian and Sid Stamm published a paper, Certified Lies [PDF], which identified the very issue that is at the center of this week’s crisis. Matt Blaze provided, as usual, a fantastic explanation:

A decade ago, I observed that commercial certificate authorities protect you from anyone from whom they are unwilling to take money. That turns out to be wrong; they don’t even do that much.

A Certificate Authority is a company that your web browser trusts to tell it who is who on the Internet. When you go to, a Certificate Authority is vouching that, yes, this is indeed Facebook you’re talking to directly over a secure channel.

What Chris and Sid highlighted is an interesting detail of how web browsers have chosen to handle trust: any Certificate Authority can certify any web site. That design decision was reasonable in 1994, when there were only two Certificate Authorities and the world was in a rush to secure web transactions. But it’s not so great now, where a Certificate Authority in Italy can delegate its authority to a small reseller, who can then, in turn, certify any web site, including Facebook and Gmail, using more or less the level of assurance the small reseller sees fit.

what happened

It looks like someone from Iran hacked into one of the small resellers three degrees of delegation away from Comodo to issue to some unknown entity (the Iranian government?) certificates for major web sites, including Google and Microsoft. This gave that entity the power to impersonate those web sites, even over secure connections indicated by your browser padlock icon. It’s important to understand that this is not Google or Microsoft’s fault. They couldn’t do anything about it, nor could they detect this kind of attack. When Comodo discovered the situation, they revoked those certificates… but that didn’t do much good because the revocation protocol does not fail safely: if your web browser can’t contact the revocation server, it assumes the certificate is valid.

a detour via Dawkins, Evolution, and the Giraffe

Richard Dawkins, the world-famous evolutionary biologist, illustrates the truly contrived effects of evolution on a giraffe. The laryngeal nerve, which runs from the brain to the larynx, takes a detour around the heart. In the giraffe, it’s a ludicrous detour: down the animal’s enormous neck, around the heart, and back up the neck again to the larynx, right near where the nerve started to begin with!

If you haven’t seen this before, you really need to spend the 4 minutes to watch it:

In Dawkins’s words:

Over millions of generations, this nerve gradually lengthened, each small step simpler than a major rewiring to a more direct route.

and we’re back

This evolution is, in my opinion, exactly what happened with certificate authorities. At first, with only two certificate authorities, it made sense to keep certificate issuance as simple as possible. With each added certificate authority, it still made no sense to revamp the whole certification process; it made more sense each time to just add a certificate authority to the list. And now we have a giraffe-scale oddity: hundreds of certificate authorities and all of their delegates can certify anyone, and it makes for a very weak system.

This isn’t, in my mind, a failure of software design. It’s just the natural course of evolution, be it biology or software systems. We can and should try to predict how certain designs will evolve, so that we can steer clear of obvious problems. But it’s very unlikely we can predict even a reasonable fraction of these odd evolutions.

the opportunity

So now that we’ve had a crisis, we have an opportunity to do something that Nature simply cannot do: we can explore radically redesigned mechanisms. We can intelligently design trust. But let’s not be surprised, in 15 years, when the wonderful design we outline today has evolved once again into something barely viable.

taking further example from nature?

Nature deals with this problem of evolutionary dead-ends in an interesting way: there isn’t just one type of animal. There are thousands. All different, all evolving under slightly different selection pressures, all interacting with one another. Some go extinct, others take over.

Should we apply this approach to software system design? I think so. Having a rich ecosystem of different components is better. We shouldn’t all use the same web browser. We shouldn’t all use the same trust model. We should allow for niches of feature evolution in this grand ecosystem we call the Web, because we simply don’t know how the ecosystem will evolve. How do we design software systems and standards that way? Now that’s an interesting question…



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3 responses to “intelligently designing trust”

  1. […] several Tor project authors, Ben Adida and many others have written, our certificate authority infrastructure has the flaw that any one […]

  2. […] several Tor project authors, Ben Adida and many others have written, our certificate authority infrastructure has the flaw that any one […]

  3. Lamelogic Avatar

    Does this mean the CA system was *not* a product of intelligent design? That would be the conclusion if Richard Dawkin’s logic is to be applied here.

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