Suppose you call up your banker and ask him to send someone over to pick up a cash deposit. An hour later, a woman who identifies herself as having been sent from the bank arrives at your office. You ask for her credentials and she shows you an ID Card that says she works at the bank. Do you give her the deposit?
Suppose, instead of calling your banker, you go online to your bank. The web page in your browser; it’s like Sally. She [the web page] says she’s from the bank .. you can even see her “ID card;” the “https:” in the browser window and the “closed lock” in the browser. That lock is something we’ve learned to trust from the earliest days of the web.
Now comes a story in the New York Times that, perhaps, it’s time to adjust our thinking. According to the Times, “those sites which are typically identified by a closed lock displayed somewhere in the Web browser, rely on a third-party organization to issue a certificate that guarantees to a user’s Web browser that the sites are authentic. But as the number of such third-party “certificate authorities” has proliferated into hundreds spread across the world, it has become increasingly difficult to trust that those who issue the certificates are not misusing them to eavesdrop on the activities of Internet users, the security experts say.”
The article quotes Peter Eckersley, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group, as saying “It is becoming one of the weaker links that we have to worry about.”
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, more than 650 organizations can issue certificates that will be accepted by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox, the two most popular Web browsers. Some of these organizations are in countries like Russia and China, which are suspected of engaging in widespread surveillance of their citizens.
The Times reports that Eckersley identified Etisalat, a wireless carrier in the United Arab Emirates, as the weakest link in the “trust chain.”
Stephen Schultze, associate director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. is quoted as saying “I think it is a really big deal,” but “is not a reason to panic and stop doing online banking or e-commerce. But it is a bad enough problem that it should be receiving a lot more attention and we should be trying to fix it.”