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The Symantec-Google feud can't be swept under the rug

The feud between Symantec and the web browser community, most notably Google, appears to be over now that DigiCert has agreed to acquire Symantec Website Security for close to $1 billion.

But according to Symantec CEO Greg Clark, there never was a feud to begin with.

Clark presented a charitable view of the Symantec-Google  dispute, which stemmed from Google’s findings of improper practices within Symantec’s certificate authority business, in a recent interview. “Some of the media reports were of a hostile situation,” Clark told CRN. “I think we had a good collaboration with Google during that process.”

It’s unclear what Clark considers “hostile” and which media outlets he’s referring to (Editor’s note: SearchSecurity has covered the proceedings extensively), but most of the back and forth between Symantec and the browser community was made public through forum messages, blog posts and corporate statements.

And those public statements show quite clearly that there was indeed a Symantec-Google feud that began on March 23rd when Google developer Ryan Sleevi announced the company’s plan on the Chromium forum to systematically remove trust from Symantec web certificates. The post, titled “Intent to Deprecate and Remove: Trust in existing Symantec-issued Certificates,” pulled few punches in describing a “series of failures” within Symantec Website Security, which included certificate misissuance, failures to remediate issues raised in audits, and other practices that ran counter to the Certificate Authority/Browser Forum’s Baseline Requirements.

What followed was a lengthy and at times tense tug-of-war between Google (and later other web browser companies, including Mozilla) and Symantec over issues with the antivirus vendor’s certificate authority (CA) practices and how to resolve them.

But one would need to go no further than Symantec’s first statement on the matter to see just how hostile the situation was right from the start. On March 24th, the day after Google’s plan to deprecate trust was made public, the antivirus vendor responded with defiant blog post titled “Symantec Backs Its CA.” In it, the company clearly suggests Google’s actions were not in the interests of security but instead designed to undermine Symantec’s certificate business.

“We strongly object to the action Google has taken to target Symantec SSL/TLS certificates in the Chrome browser. This action was unexpected, and we believe the blog post was irresponsible,” the statement read. “We hope it was not calculated to create uncertainty and doubt within the Internet community about our SSL/TLS certificates.”

Symantec didn’t stop there, either. Later in the blog post, the company accused Google of exaggerating the scope of Symantec’s past certificate issues and said its statements on the matter were “misleading.”

Symantec also wrote that Google “singled out” its certificate authority business and pledged to minimize the “disruption” caused by Google’s announcement. And throughout the post, Symantec repeatedly claimed that everything was fine, outside of previously disclosed issues, and that there was nothing to see here.

Clark believes the Symantec-Google dispute wasn’t hostile, but the antivirus vendor’s own words contradict that. Right from the start, Symantec accused Google of unfairly targeting it; acting irresponsibly and causing needless disruption for Symantec; and acting upon ulterior and malicious motives rather than genuine infosec concerns.

It should be noted that none of those claims were supported by what followed. Mozilla joined Google and found new issues with Symantec Website Security certificate. And instead of denying Google and Mozilla’s findings and refusing to adopt their remediation plan – which required Symantec to hands over its CA operations to a third party – Symantec agreed to make sweeping changes to its certificate business in order to regain.

Clark said in the interview that Symantec-Google dispute “came to a good outcome.”

That’s true; DigiCert will pay $950 million for Symantec’s certificate business, and Symantec will retain a 30% stake in the busy while bearing none of the responsibility for the operate. But if Google hadn’t announced its plan to deprecate trust and put this process in motion, Symantec wouldn’t have lifted a finger to address the obvious and lengthy list of issues with its certificate authority operations. Symantec Website Security would have continued along its current path of lax reviews, questionable audits and other certificate woes.

Clark also said the situation is largely resolved, and there are no hard feelings between the two companies. “I think Symantec and Google have a better relationship because of it,” he said.

It may be true that Symantec and Google have effectively buried the hatchet, but to suggest there never was a hatchet to begin with is absurd.

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