US Government aiding spying… against itself

Partly as a consequence of the US Government shutdown, there are presently more than two hundred .gov websites using expired SSL certificates. Although the shutdown is expected to be a short term measure, the widespread use of expired certificates on .gov sites may cause long term harm. The US Government is effectively training its citizens and employees to click through SSL warnings, and once the users of a website treat SSL error messages as normal, attackers may be able to perform otherwise difficult man-in-the-middle attacks.

The situation is exacerbated by the behaviour of some mainstream browsers which do not faithfully warn the user of the most serious problem in scenarios where two or more errors are present.

An SSL error message presented on EV-enabled in Google Chrome.

When an SSL error occurs, some browsers only display a single error message, sometimes not the most serious, or even a generic error message for all types of SSL error. An attacker can exploit this vulnerable browser behaviour on SSL sites with expired certificates to perform an almost seamless man-in-the-middle attack. By signing his own expired SSL certificate for a US government website, the SSL error message displayed for the attacker's SSL certificate is indistinguishable (in some browsers) from the error message produced by the real SSL certificate belonging to the US Government. Citizens accustomed to seeing the "expired" error message will happily proceed with a connection using the attacker's expired (and untrusted) certificate, unwittingly communicating with the attacker instead of the US Government.

By testing an expired certificate signed by an expired untrusted issuer, Netcraft found that whilst some browsers are vulnerable, Internet Explorer is not as it correctly displays both error messages. Google Chrome on Windows and OS X displays the more serious error message but does not display a warning about the expiry. All other tested browsers displayed either a generic error message or did not mention that the issuing CA is not widely trusted. Generic error messages are dangerous if they hide the severity of the SSL error from the user: a change in the type of the SSL error (from expiry to an untrusted issuer) will not be noticed. The tested website contained in the screenshots below is not on a .gov domain, but demonstrates browser behaviour with an untrusted and expired CA certificate with an expired end-entity certificate.

Google Chrome displaying an error message for an expired SSL certificate issued by an untrusted CA. From left to right: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android.

Google Chrome's behaviour is not consistent across its supported platforms: on Windows and Mac OS X it displays the most serious SSL error message, namely that an untrusted issuer has signed this SSL certificate. On Linux and Android, however, Google Chrome displays an error message about the expired certificate and does not mention the untrusted issuer. By reading the error message and accepting the risks of trusting an expired certificate, a user may unwittingly trust an SSL certificate that was not issued by a widely trusted CA.

Internet Explorer and Opera displaying an error message for an expired SSL certificate issued by an untrusted CA.

On Windows, Internet Explorer correctly presented both applicable error messages. Opera presented the more serious error message though only after viewing an additional dialogue box. Once a user is accustomed to accepting Opera's generic error message, any other type of SSL error on the same website is unlikely to be noticed. Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Opera all use Microsoft's CryptoAPI on the Windows platform which may explain their similar behaviour.

Firefox displaying an error message for an expired SSL certificate issued by an untrusted CA.

Firefox, which displays a generic error message for most SSL errors, has further information hidden by default. For an expired certificate issued by an untrusted and expired CA, Firefox's error message refers only to expired certificates (both the CA and end-entity certificates) and does not make any mention of the issuer not being a widely-trusted CA. Hidden details mean that a user having seen the same error message on the .gov website may not notice a change in the category of the SSL error message.

Safari (on OS X and iOS) displaying an error message for an expired SSL certificate issued by an untrusted CA.

Safari on OS X, like both Firefox and Opera displays a generic error message. If the message is expanded, Safari displays an error message based on the expired certificate and will also highlight the lack of trust in the issuer. Safari on iOS 7 displays a generic error message, "Not trusted", for many types of SSL certificate error — it is difficult to tell what is wrong with the SSL certificate without examining the certificate in detail.

Even without the "training" from the US Government, the click-through rate of different SSL messages has been demonstrated to be very high. For Firefox, which doesn't display full error messages by default, Akhawe and Porter Felt found SSL error messages were bypassed in 85% of cases: 87% for untrusted issuer messages and 81% for expired certificate errors. Paradoxically, in Google Chrome expired certificate error messages were dismissed 57% of the time whereas error messages for an untrusted issuer (the more serious problem) were dismissed in 82% of studied cases.

Phishers using CloudFlare for SSL

Some Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) enable fraudsters to deploy phishing attacks with valid SSL certificates. Not only does this make the fraudulent sites appear more credible, but they also benefit from the fast response times provided by the CDN.

A Turkish phishing site using CloudFlare (site has since been taken down)

The phishing site on is targeted at Turkcell customers — visitors to the phishing site are asked for their phone number, bank name, credit card details, and password. As CloudFlare's SSL feature is only available on paid accounts (which start at $20/month), the fraudster may have used an early victim's credit card to purchase the Pro plan.

Netcraft is currently blocking hundreds of phishing attacks which use CloudFlare's content delivery network, including some which use CloudFlare-provided SSL certificates. So far this year, Netcraft has blocked more than 2,000 phishing attacks using Cloudflare's infrastructure, of which approaching 200 used SSL.

CloudFlare's SSL certificates make use of the Subject Alternative Name (SAN) extension, which allows an edge node to use a single certificate for multiple domains. In the case of, the edge node presented a certificate which had a common name (CN) of "", but also included the domain along with the domains of many other CloudFlare customers.

An SSL certificate used by a CloudFlare edge node server. It is valid for multiple domains belonging to its customers.

The multi-domain SSL certificates used by CloudFlare edge nodes are issued by GlobalSign. Rather than using Server Name Identification (SNI) — which would allow an individual certificate to be used for each website on a single IP address — CloudFlare uses GlobalSign's Cloud product to work around a lack of support for SNI in Internet Explorer on Windows XP and some mobile browsers. The two companies announced their partnership less than a year ago, and GlobalSign's own website uses CloudFlare, as do its OCSP and CRL services.

Some of the SSL phishing sites on CloudFlare that have been blocked by Netcraft have used deceptive domain names, such as, and Last month, a similarly deceptive domain name and SSL certificate issued by Network Solutions was used in a phishing attack against customers of Chase Bank.

Domain registrars and certificate authorities can reduce the likelihood of new domains and certificates being used for fraudulent activities. Netcraft's Domain Registration Risk service identifies domains which are deceptively similar to legitimate websites run by banks and other institutions that are commonly targeted by phishing attackers.

President Obama forgets to renew SSL certificate

At the start of the first US Government shutdown since 1996, an SSL certificate used on has expired. Issued by Go Daddy in September 2012, the SSL certificate for * and was used by Organizing for Action, a non-profit grassroots organisation aligned with Obama's political policies. Whilst not directly associated with the US Government, the expiry of the SSL certificate for during a US Government shutdown is nonetheless a curious coincidence.

Warning in Google Chrome when visiting a website using the SSL certificate for *

Several SSL certificates controlled by the US Government expired today and are still being used — for example, the SSL certificates used on both and have expired and may not be replaced any time soon. Furthermore, there are at least 30 US Government sites still using SSL certificates that are scheduled to expire before Friday.

SSL certificates expiring may be least of the problems for US Government websites, some websites have been taken offline: now redirects to

Wildcard EV certificates supported by major browsers

Extended Validation, or EV, certificates are designed to provide evidence of a greater level of verification by the Certificate Authority of the legal identity of the company in control of the SSL certificate and domain name. By way of contrast, the most common type of certificate, domain-validated, only requires the CA to verify control of the domain name. Browsers display EV-specific cues within the user interface to highlight this additional verification: most notably, the company name is displayed in the address bar, often with a green padlock or a green bar.

An Extended Validation certificate for in Google Chrome

EV certificates are subject to additional requirements, over and above those specified in the Baseline Requirements. As with the Baseline Requirements, the EV guidelines were drawn up by the CA/B forum, an industry group of both browser vendors and CAs. The EV guidelines prohibit EV certificates from using wildcards (i.e.,, and would all match * and explicitly mention this restriction twice "Wildcard certificates are not allowed for EV Certificates".

Nevertheless, Verizon Business has chosen to test browsers' approach to wildcard EV certificates by issuing a certificate to Accenture for * Verizon Business — which is not a member of the CA/B forum — is known for its maverick approach to certificate issuance having issued certificates (including EV certificates) which violate the Baseline Requirements.

Despite the EV guidelines prohibiting wildcard EV certificate issuance, presently most major browsers fail to enforce this restriction. Google Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Safari (Desktop) all retain the EV browser cues when visiting a website using this EV certificate.

Clockwise from top left: Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera, and Firefox. All display the conventional EV browser cues.

The only exception was Safari — Desktop Safari displays the EV browser cues as normal, as do the remainder of the desktop browsers; however, Safari on iOS 7 does not display the EV UI.

Safari (Desktop)

Safari on iOS 7 does not display the conventional EV UI for the wildcard EV certificate. An example of the EV UI in iOS 7.

Netcraft offers a Baseline Requirements checking service for CAs to provide third-party verification of Baseline Requirements conformance. For more information contact

Certificate Authorities struggle to comply with Baseline Requirements

SSL Certificate Authorities (CAs) are responsible for issuing the SSL certificates which are used to protect billions of secure transactions across the internet against eavesdroppers and impersonators. The CA/B forum — a group of CAs and browser vendors — drew up the Baseline Requirements in 2011 outlining a set of minimum standards to which all CAs should operate.

Since the "effective date" of the document, 1st July 2012, compliance with the Baseline Requirements has been mixed — Netcraft has previously discovered non-compliant certificates, including short RSA public keys and irrevocable certificates. More than a year on and several months after Mozilla incorporated the Baseline Requirements into its CA policy (albeit with a transition period allowed) CAs are still issuing non-compliant certificates.

By examining the certificates found in Netcraft's SSL Survey and evaluating them against a small subset of rules extracted from the Baseline Requirements document, Netcraft found more than 2,500 non-compliant certificates. The non-complaint certificates fall into one or more of the categories described below: some of the problems are serious security vulnerabilities, and others are less critical but are still violations of the Baseline Requirements.

  • Short RSA public key — the shorter a public key is; the easier it is for an attacker (such as the NSA) to brute-force the secret private key, and hence decrypt communication. NIST recommended that certificates should not use RSA public keys shorter than 2048 bits after December 2013 and the CA/B forum imposes the same rule.
  • Missing OCSP URL — OCSP is one of the two available revocation mechanisms available to CAs to disable the certificate after it has been issued. As web-browser support for certificate revocation varies, non-EV certificates without an OCSP URL are effectively irrevocable in Firefox. Without the ability to revoke certificates, if the certificate were ever to be compromised — by criminals or government agencies — it could be used for up to five years. The Baseline Requirements do allow certificates to omit the OCSP URL if and only if they are used on "high traffic" websites and the website staples the OCSP response to the TLS handshake — none of the websites with missing OCSP URLs highlighted here did so.
  • SAN extension — the Baseline Requirements document discourages the use of the Subject Common Name field to contain the hostname for which the certificate is valid. Instead, the Subject Alternative Name extension should be used and it must contain at least one record. Additionally, any hostname in the Subject CN field must also be duplicated in the SAN extension — a multi-domain certificate intended for and must contain both in the SAN extension and at most one in the Subject CN (for backwards compatibility).
  • Validity Period — as of the effective date, the Baseline Requirements limit the maximum validity period of a certificate to 5 years (60 months). Whilst exceeding this validity period constraint isn't itself a security problem it slows downs the pace of change within the industry — with a shorter maximum validity period, browsers can rely on legacy behaviour disappearing and can remove insecure functionality more rapidly.

A short key warning for a 512-bit certificate in Google Chrome. This type of warning is proposed to be applied to certificates violating the maximum validity period.

Several large CAs have issued non-compliant certificates since July 2013, a year after the original deadline, including Symantec, Go Daddy, and Verizon Business.

  • Symantec — a BMW certificate issued by TC Trust Center (a Symantec company) is missing an OCSP URL and does not include a stapled OCSP response, making it irrevocable in Firefox. An SSL certificate used for online banking was issued by VeriSign on August 2nd 2013 without the required SAN extension.
  • Verizon Business — a certificate issued by Etisalat (a UAE-based telecoms provider which operates a Verizon Business signed sub-CA) for ADCO, an onshore oil drilling company, violates a number of Baseline Requirements: it has a short RSA key valid after 31st December 2013, it has no OCSP URL and it does not have the mandatory SAN extension. Etisalat has previously been associated with SSL interception. Cybertrust, operated directly by Verizon Business, has also issued more than its fair share of non-compliant certificates including certificates belonging to Target [Short Key, no OCSP URL], the US Dept. for Homeland Security [no SAN, no OCSP URL], and American Express [an EV certificate without an OCSP URL!]. A number of other sub-CAs signed by Verizon Business have issued non-compliant certificates including Microsoft [missing SAN, no OCSP URL] and Vodafone [missing SAN].
  • SwissSign — Nestlé, a customer of SwissSign with its own intermediate certificate, has issued non-compliant certificates including: those missing SAN records and OCSP URLs.
  • Go Daddy — a significant number of Go Daddy certificates exceed the maximum permitted validity period of 5 years. These certificates are likely "re-issued" (the meaning of which is debated by Google, see below) and otherwise do not obviously violate the Baseline Requirements. Go Daddy have proposed a modification to the Baseline Requirements to allow such re-issued certificates to be exempt from maximum validity period constraints.

Google Chrome, in the first quarter of 2014, will reject all certificates issued after the effective date, 1st July 2012, which violate the maximum validity period (60 months). A number of CAs have issued such certificates, often as part of a re-issuance process, which Google deems to be non-compliant with the Baseline Requirements.

In the September 2013 SSL Survey, using the criteria from the proposed Google Chrome patch, Netcraft found 3,243 certificates which will be considered invalid in Google Chrome as a result of this change. Go Daddy issued over three-quarters of these certificates (2,498) and Comodo also issued a significant number (606). The longest-lived non-compliant certificate issued by a member of the CA/B Forum and discovered by the SSL Survey has a validity period of over 82 months.

Furthermore, Google's technical enforcement is set to get tougher: Ryan Sleevi has stated that certificates with short public keys – that is, RSA public keys shorter than 2048 bits expiring after 31st December 2013 are “next up” on Google’s list. Google's proposal to use the original July 2012 date as a threshold for enforcement isn't popular with some of the CAs in the CA/B forum: GlobalSign and Comodo have argued that such technical constraints should only be enforced for certificates issued after the announcement.

Despite Google's aggressive stance, many of Google's own certificates did not comply with some of the Baseline Requirements: in the September 2013 Netcraft SSL survey, almost 500 Google certificates did not contain a URL to an OCSP responder or include a stapled OCSP response (making the certificates irrevocable in Firefox). Since the survey ran in mid-August, a large number of Google's certificates have been replaced and now contain an OCSP URL, but a few non-compliant certificates are still in use including one on The certificate also has an incomplete SAN record (it does not contain the hostname from the Subject Common Name field).

Perfect Forward Secrecy in the Netcraft Extension

Netcraft has added a Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS) indicator to the Netcraft Extension for Firefox, Chrome and Opera. This lets users see which websites would allow encrypted traffic to be decrypted en mass at a later date if the site's private key were to be compromised — a danger previously highlighted by Netcraft in June.

PFS, when implemented correctly, ensures that if the long-term private key of a site served over SSL is compromised, historical encrypted traffic cannot be decrypted in bulk. Instead, an eavesdropper would have to break each individual connection independently, which would be incredibly time consuming.

With the recent revelations from Edward Snowden that the NSA is able to read encrypted internet traffic, PFS support is very desirable for privacy-conscious internet users, particularly in countries that also have key disclosure laws.

Currently, most of the major web browsers make it difficult to tell whether or not a website supports PFS. For example, Chrome, Opera 15, and Internet Explorer display information about the current cipher suite in a pop-up, but checking for PFS support relies on in-depth knowledge. Firefox and Opera 12 display part of the cipher suite in their user interfaces; however, they crucially lack the key exchange mechanism, which means it is not possible for the user to tell whether the site supports PFS. Safari fares the worst, as it does not display any information at all about the current cipher suite.

The Netcraft Extension — which blocks phishing attacks and displays metadata about visited websites — now clearly indicates whether the site you are visiting supports PFS. This is displayed in the user interface as a green tick if the site supports PFS, and a red cross if it does not. In addition, in both Chrome and Opera, a small indicator is displayed beside the Netcraft badge when visiting an SSL site which does not support PFS.

The following screenshots show the PFS indicator in the Netcraft Extension when visiting the DuckDuckGo search engine, which enabled the use of PFS cipher suites after the lack of PFS was highlighted in Netcraft's previous analysis of PFS support.

PFS indicator in the Netcraft Extension for Google Chrome™
(The Opera version looks similar)

PFS indicator in the Netcraft Extension for Firefox

The Netcraft Extension is available for Firefox, Chrome and Opera, and can be downloaded from More information about the PFS indicator can be found on the Netcraft Extension FAQ page.

Note: The new version of the Firefox extension is currently awaiting approval from Mozilla; however, it can be manually installed from the version history page by selecting version 1.8.1.