Tag Archives: GeoTrust

A No-Nonsense Guide to EV (“Green Bar”) SSL … Plus Some Jokes

 

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I used to work for an SSL certificate company. While I was there, I always had a little difficulty explaining to customers why Extended Validation (EV) SSL and the green address bar that accompanies it might be worth the extra cost. This article attempts to distill the industry standard so we can understand it without the hype. After all, when we seek information online about what EV is and what it entails in terms of security and credibility, most of what we find is sales pitches from SSL companies. This article will represent my best effort to provide no-nonsense information as an alternative.

Now, just so you know our potential bias upfront, at Superb, we do sell SSL certificates. We offer three different types, each from a Symantec subsidiary: RapidSSL, GeoTrust QuickSSL Premium, and GeoTrust True BusinessID with EV. All three types of certificates are tied to the Equifax root certificate. We sell each of them well below the prices set by the vendors, but many of our customers choose the RapidSSL because it’s so inexpensive … and also probably because it’s not quite clear why EV might be a wise choice.

To get our information, I am reviewing the details about SSL certificates presented by the CA/Browser Forum (CA/B Forum), an industry board that originally defined EV and continues to dictate how it is vetted and its basic appearance on the Web. The board includes representatives from all the major CAs (certification authorities) as well as all the major browser companies (including Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Mozilla). Essentially, the forum offers an across-the-board point of connection for the heavy hitters in the Web browser and SSL worlds.

What looking at the CA/B Forum allows us to do is get beyond what even the most trusted companies have to say about EV. Symantec, for instance, performed EV SSL case studies with its high-end certificates, the VeriSign brand, which is now called Norton Secured. These studies are honestly the most convincing I’ve seen because they’re documented in fairly thorough white papers and were conducted (rather than internally) by outside entities, such as The Find.

Along with looking at the CA/B Forum, we will also look at perspectives from the Taxicab Forum. The Taxicab Forum, a group of cab drivers who get together to drink coffee, chain-smoke, and complain about marks, does not have a website and does not understand SSL certificates. However, its mission is similar (sort of) to the CA/B Forum: “to get marks securely and efficiently from point A to point B … or not.” That’s a little wishy-washy, guys.

What is SSL, For Real Though?

First, so we are all on the same page, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about: What is an SSL (secure socket layer) certificate or “cert” (and I’ll also get into why lower-end cert encryption can at times be less than ideal)?  Well, for starters, it creates the lock symbol and converts all pages on which one is active from http to https. The CA/B Forum further describes SSL https://www.cabforum.org/faq.html as “a security protocol that operates between a browser and a Web site … [providing] confidentiality and data integrity by means of cryptographic techniques.”

Primarily, what an SSL certificate is standardly performing, as a piece of technology, is encryption via an accepted, standardized format. SSL certs from legitimate companies all operate on similar algorithms. The other function it serves is third-party vetting and basic site ownership information to create a standardized sense of trust for users of sites. Bear in mind that vetting ranges enormously for the different types of SSL validation – RapidSSL only verifies the domain, for instance, while the GeoTrust EV certificate verifies site ownership as well (and that verification can be extensive – well, that’s the name – as discussed below).

Finally, the integrity of the data is much less likely to be compromised when https is in place. Three ways in which this can happen include:

  1. ISP Tampering – Internet Service Providers are disallowed from changing anything that passes between a user and a site.
  2. DNS Security – Meddling with DNS, such as cache poisoning, becomes less likely if an SSL is in place.
  3. HTTP Security – Hacks to the http cache, such as http response splitting, are also prevented.

It makes sense that the SSL companies and browsers must act in concert. If the algorithm used by a company is determined to need improvement, the browsers will stop accepting it. Issues with algorithms can be a particular problem with the lower-end certificates, if history is any indication.

Mozilla, for instance, started disallowing older RapidSSL certificates on Firefox (showing a security error if they were left in place after a certain date) a couple years ago because it determined there was a security loophole in some of the older certificates. The RapidSSL algorithm had already been upgraded to meet modern security standards; but some outmoded, multiple-year certificates still remained on several thousand sites. RapidSSL notified all of its customers and partners, and the company reissued updated certificates for free – so it wasn’t a huge problem. However, this is a great example of how SSL firms and the browsers must work in tandem to allow for the highest possible standards for https-enabled pages.

Taxicab Forum Comment:

“EV? Uh, that’s an electric vehicle, right? Oh, it’s a certificate. Yeah, you have to always keep your certification posted at all times, or you can get in trouble with the law. Hm? Internet security? Why are you asking me about this? You owe me $38.50. I’ve had the meter running while we’ve been talking.” – Keith Jones, Chaplain, Taxicab Forum

The CA/B Forum & EV Standards

Let’s look now at the primary standards for EV and then at why it might make sense for your organization. EV issuance and implementation protocol was developed by the CA/B forum along with committees from the American Bar Association and the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants. EV SSL certificates can only be issued to private associations and companies and to government branches. In other words, these types of certificates are not available for individual or sole proprietor purchase because the organization itself will be vetted via cross-checking of public records; additionally, executive leadership of the business must sign off on issuance and confirm a number of the company’s details.

The Parameters for EV

The parameters through which an EV is validated is different depending on the type of entity that is requesting the certificate. Just to get a basic sense, let’s look at how a business is validated:

  1. The company requesting the EV cert must exist within the records of a registration agency (typically a state government in the case of the United States).
  2. Physical location of the business must be verifiable (in other words, it must have a street address).
  3. Executive leadership at the company must be validated (so in other words, not just the business itself but a real-live human must verify request of the SSL)
  4. The executive must verify details of the request (also referred to as the subscriber agreement).
  5. The business can use a DBA (“doing business as”) name, but only if that DBA is verifiable as a part of the business. ** Note that in my experience, this aspect causes the greatest frustration for companies; because of this, you cannot choose what to call yourself. It’s all about what is verifiable in public records: your official name therein.
  6. Neither the company nor the executive may exist physically (via physical location or residence) in a nation in which the CA cannot legally issue a certificate.
  7. Neither the company nor the individual may be on a list of organizations disapproved by the government where the CA is principally located.

Taxicab Forum Comment:

“Security, yeah I know about security. That’s why I have a mace: not the spray kind of mace, but the kind you swing at people. I use it for the same purposes as they did back in the Middle Ages: to break through armor. You’re safe though, because you’re not wearing armor. I like people. I’m just anti-armor, that’s all.” – Lou-Anne Richardson, VP of Security, Taxicab Forum

Why EV Might Make Sense: Objectives

OK, now let’s discuss objectives. Here is why EV was created by the CA/B members:

  1. Site & User Security – Like all SSL, the EV allows a safer Web experience via use of virtual keys. Encryption scrambles all information in transfer.
  2. Business Validation – Confirmation of the business through private and public channels allows site users to know the physical location and legal existence of the site business and administration.
  3. Fraud Reduction – Fraud can be prevented in several ways via an EV SSL certificate:

– Less likelihood of phishing occurring on enabled sites. Both the extensive validation procedures and presentation of the green address bar make it easier to know that the site is the legitimate one, not an impostor.

– Easier for law enforcement to fight phishing and other types of online fraud (theft or “borrowing” of a website’s identity, essentially) by providing clearer details of what is “real” and “unreal” on the Web.

Taxicab Forum Comment:

“Well, I think I sort of understand what you mean. Green means go, so the green thing is supposed to tell people that it’s safe to proceed on the website. Well, here’s the thing: yellow also means go. In fact, in certain cases, red means go. And every so often, I come across a blinking blue light, and I just blow right through it. One time I drove off the end of a bridge because of that, but I hit the bank on the other side and just kept driving.” – Mike Wright, Assistant to the Ombudsman, Taxicab Forum

Conclusion

It’s obvious with EV SSL certificates that they’re helpful to making a user feel more secure because of the green address bar. It’s a visual cue that even a child can understand. I will also say that the argument of, “No one knows what that is,” which I’ve heard a lot, seems off-base. The whole idea of it is that you don’t need to know what it is necessarily: the green indicator, business name, and name of the issuing CA in the browser makes it abundantly clear that the site is doing business in a responsible way, according to the browser and to the security company (eg, Symantec).

Hopefully, though, this article has gone beyond the basics and been helpful in establishing details that go beyond what you might have already read or heard about EV SSL certificates. Now you can decide for yourself whether or not they are worth the added expense for your business and for the general online security movement. And a huge thanks to Mike, Lou-Anne, and Keith for your expertise and for not hitting me with the mace or driving me into a river. Sorry for the $1.50 tip, Keith.

by Kent Roberts and Richard Norwood

SSL Certificate Types & Being an Outstanding 3rd-Grader


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What’s an SSL, and what does it do?

An SSL (secure socket layer) certificate is a simple, standardized piece of encryption software. By installing the SSL cert on your server, it will create https protocol and the lock symbol on the site for which it is validated (more on levels of validation below).

Encryption itself is important because that way any sensitive information that passes from the client to you, or vice versa, is not intercepted by third parties. SSL doesn’t actually scramble information. It locks information within a public key – a long string of characters. The string of characters is called a public key. A private key is then passed to each person visiting the site. The private key allows you to decrypt the public key information so that you can get access to the data. The same is true on the opposite end of the connection. That way the owner of a site and any visitor can pass information back and forth without the fear of interception.

SSL technology is very standardized and similar. If you are unsure about a certain brand name, SSL certificates are incredibly inexpensive at the low-end. You can always test a certificate to ensure it works on all the major browsers. That’s the advantage of going with a company with a thirty-day return policy. Such a policy demonstrates a certain level of faith in the functionality of the certificate across a broad spectrum of operating systems and devices.

A twenty-nine day policy, on the other hand, shows 3.33% less faith in one’s product. Look out for twenty-nine day return policies online. One online entrepreneur, Thad Dotnet, when asked about his twenty-nine day policy, admitted, “I am only 96.67% as confident in what I’m selling as many of the other folks out there – and even that’s rounding up a little bit. The extent to which I’m confident versus others has a repeating decimal.”

There are, beyond different basic functionalities of SSL, different levels of validation – extended validation (EV), organizational validation (OV), and domain validation (DV). I wrote a piece previously on the different levels of validation that an SSL certificate can go through; the piece basically discusses the parameters and why people sometimes choose the higher-end, more expensive certificates – in a nutshell, to enhance credibility by proving themselves as legitimate.

Getting a brand name SSL cert means that no one will have browser errors when they visit encrypted pages of your site. It also means, as with the validation levels, that credibility and trust are established with clients because you are vetted by a third party who is putting their name on the line that your business is the site owner.

**All of the SSL certificates sold through Superb Internet are Symantec products, which both means that you are certified by one of the biggest names in security and one of the largest organizations in the Certificate Authority / Browser Forum (CA/B Forum) which determines SSL certification requirements across the industry.

We will review several different types and cases of SSL certificates and related authentication technologies: wildcard, server-gated cryptography (SGC), UC (unified communications) aka SAN (subject authorized name), code-signing, email, root-signing, and shared. Each of these represents different types of certificates with different functionalities that might be of use to you as you are running your site.

Finally, we will review certificates of excellence. Certificates of excellence are certificates that you get for behaving well, sitting in your seat, asking questions that help the other children learn, and volunteering for lunchroom duty. The latter task is the most important because it demonstrates your commitment to foregoing child labor laws for the good of the school community, which is very important to the principal.

I used anonymous articles from SSL Shopper, GeoTrust, and Symantec as references for this piece.

What’s web server authentication?

Server authentication is the basic SSL certificate type. This type of cert is issued by a certificate authority (CA) such as GeoTrust, VeriSign, or Comodo to secure traffic or other data flowing through the Internet.  Here are a few examples of uses for these standard SSL certificates to secure data:

  • Web server
  • Email server
  • Transferring files
  • Other transfers of data

What are Wildcard Certificates?

A typical SSL certificate is validated for the main domain or a subdomain. For example:

  • www.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com
  • iarguewithmywifealot.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com

Wildcards cover all subdomains of a site. They look like this, with the asterisk representing all possible subdomains:

  • *.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com.

A wildcard is preferred by many people because it means encryption will be in place regardless how many subdomains you create – it pre-creates an encryption scenario as the site’s subdomains build.

Note the following: Wildcards are specific to first-level subdomains. You can only replace the asterisk with a subdomain on that level. For example, a wildcard will work for the following subdomains:

  • www.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com
  • iarguewithmywifealot.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com
  • anything.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com
  • nothing.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com
  • infinitemindf—.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com

This wildcard, however (*.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com), will not work for the following:

  • hereiam.getbackhereyou.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com
  • imwayoverhere.wheredidyougo.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com

Those scenarios would require the following wildcard cert names to be covered:

  • *.getbackhereyou.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com
  • *.wheredidyougo.ohmygodwhyismydomainnamedthis.com

What’s SGC?

Server-Gated Cryptography, or SGC, is a functionality built into some of the higher-end certificates (such as the VeriSign Pro certificates from Symantec) that forces all systems to a minimum of 128-bit encryption, rather than 40, which is outdated. Note that all of the newer operating systems no longer need SGC. SGC is arguably outdated and unnecessary, but you will still find a very small percentage of people using older, outmoded browsers and devices that might require SGC.

128-bit and 40-bit may look similar, but they aren’t: more than tripling the string of characters represents a massive, exponential increase in the encryption strength. Specifically, 128-bit encryption is 2^88 more powerful than 40-bit, making it a trillion times a trillion times stronger (Source: Symantec). Again, though, keep in mind that SGC is widely considered unnecessary because operating systems and devices are now calibrated not to need the step-up from 40-bit that SGC provides. Here are a few of the browsers that would need SGC in order to support 128-bit encryption:

  • Internet Explorer export browser from 3.02 to, but not including, 5.5
  • Netscape export browser from 4.02 through 4.72
  • Any usage of Internet Explorer on devices using the Windows 2000 OS where the OS/device shipped before March 2001 and that have not been upgraded with High Encryption Pack or Service Pack 2.

What’s Unified Communications or SAN certification?

Unified Communications (UC) certificates (also called UCCs) are specifically issued to authenticate and secure Live Communications and Exchange 2007 servers. These types of certificates can secure other servers as well, but they were designed to allow multiple domains and servers to be secured with one cert.

UC SSL has a specified number of domains/subdomains that it can cover – unlike the wildcard, which is unlimited. These certificates typically start at 5 domains and subdomains and range up to 25, 50, or 100, depending on the CA. UCC certs are also called Subject Authorized Name (SAN) or multi-domain certificates. Here are examples of different domains and subdomains that you could secure using one SAN cert:

  • autodiscover.server.local
  • www.welliguessicouldsecurethis.com
  • welliguessicouldsecurethis.com
  • thistoowhynot.welliguessicouldsecurethis.com
  • www.anotherdomainholycrapthiscertisawesome.com

What is a Code Signing Certificate?

Code signing certificates enable digital signing of software. Specifically, it allows you to sign a script that authenticates you as the author of the code and that the code has not been corrupted since it was signed. This functionality does not exist within a standard SSL certificate. Some industry insiders describe code signing certificates as a way of shrink-wrapping your software code in a secure package.

As with an SSL certificate, the dual advantage of code signing certificates is that you are both securing/protecting with the certificate but are additionally providing authentication/trust to anyone thinking about downloading or otherwise interacting with your software. In other words, there is a technological/functional and a perception component. A good example of technology lacking the perceptive component from reproductive science is the invisible condom. Invisibility seems like a great advantage until you realize that the product cannot be seen and, because of this, seems not to exist. (This form of contraception is promoted heavily by the Pope.)

Personally, I think that these certificates are underused – and it looks really shoddy when you don’t have one. Typically a window will pop up that asks if the visitor is sure that they want to continue with the download because the publisher cannot be verified. Anyone serious about looking professional online does not want that window to be seen by its customers. Plus, the window should be shown in those circumstances, because the publisher is not bothering to protect those downloading its software from potential harm. You are bad, bad people, all of you! Boo!

What’s an Email Certificate?

Email/S/MIME certificates are another form of digital signing. The email certificate encrypts email and guarantees the author’s identity. There’s a distinction here regarding email that’s important. An SSL certificate can secure an email server. However, to secure individual email accounts and the messages within them – and to verify authorship to enhance trust – you need an email certificate for each account.

A good time to get an email certificate is if you really actually are a member of a legal team representing the estate of a wealthy Nigerian prince. The necessity for an email certificate becomes more pronounced if you are trying to get your inheritance to an American who was previously unaware that they were related to you. Never be mistaken for spam, legal team! Get certified!

Summary & Conclusion

As you can see, there are a number of different security certificates beyond the standard SSL version. Wildcards give full coverage across a website. SAN/UCC give the ability to certify multiple domains and subdomains specified within the cert. Email certificates verify specific email accounts. Code signing allows you to verify yourself as the author of a piece of software. SGC forces all systems to 128/256-bit encryption.

Finally, certificates of excellence demonstrate your ability to be a good team player within the school. It’s proof that you are one of the most active and engaged third graders we have seen. It means that you pick up your trash. It means that your locker is organized. It means that you care, and that your dedication has not gone unnoticed.

by Kent Roberts and Richard Norwood