Multivendor power council formed to address digital certificate issues

With cyber-criminals increasingly exploiting digital certificates to undermine security the vendors with the most influence as certificate authorities have banded together to try and speak as an industry group to advocate for security best practices.

[ALSO: Symantec SSL certificates feature cryptography 10K harder to break than RSA-bit key]

Their newly created organization is known as the Certificate Authority Security Council (CASC) and members include Comodo, DigiCert, Entrust, GlobalSign, GoDaddy, Symantec and Trend Micro which comprise virtually the entire public digital certificate market today. As a steering committee member, Dean Cochin, director of business development at Symantec, said the intent is to advocate how to use SSL certificates "to maximum benefit." But the group acknowledged it can't avoid tackling unpleasant realities such as cyber-criminals also trying to undermine digital certificates for maximum benefit, too.

A case in point is the admission this week by security vendor Bit9 that hackers stole a digital code-signing certificates off its network and dropped malware in the systems of three of its customers.

According to the admission of Bit9 chief executive Patrick Morley in a blog post, Bit9, which makes software to lock-down computers, failed to follow its own best practices by making sure its own product was on all its physical and virtual machines. Attackers managed to break into the Bit9 network and steal digital code-signing certificates which they then used to sign their malware and install it on three Bit9 customers. As part of cleaning up its operation, Bit9 said it revoked the certificates and acquired new ones. It also said it's "monitoring the Bit9 Software reputation Service for hashes from the illegitimately signed malware."

This kind of serious problem has been occurring in part because the code-signing certificate can be moved about, and one idea is to instead use a cloud-based code-signing certificate service in which a certificate is used only once while maintaining an audit trail. Coclin said except for Microsoft Windows Mobile which uses something along these lines, this kind of cloud-based service doesn't exist in general today but could well come in the future.

For today's launch as a group, CASC officially took up the banner to advocate what's called "OCSP Stapling," which is an alternative to the Online Certificate Status Protocol for checking the revocation of X.509 digital certificates.

Ryan Hurst, CTO at GlobalSign, and a member of CASC, described this as a method to have the site server, rather than the visitor's browser, initiate and complete the process to check the validity of the site certificate. The goal is to improve SSL performance, he said.

Beyond this type of technical recommendation, CASC plans educational sessions oriented toward the public and in particular Web server administrators, software vendors, browser developers and end-users through online posts and conference presentations.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail:

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