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SSL alternatives? Crafting Web-security programs for emerging threats

Expert Nick Lewis reacts to breaches at SSL certificate issuers and tackles whether enterprises should turn to SSL alternatives.

For many years, security pros and users alike have trusted SSL for Web security, but SSL breaches at Comodo Inc. highlight the growing threats to SSL. Is there a more secure way to lock down Internet transactions? Do you have any predictions for what the next generation of online security might be?

While end users may have completely trusted SSL for Web security, contrary to common belief, not all security pros have always thought it quite so trustworthy. The belief that SSL is all anyone needs for Web security has been, in part, influenced by SSL Web security vendor marketing. With the introduction of extended validation (EV) certificates, this marketing increased in fervor. The Comodo breach was not a breach of the SSL protocol or of Web security, however, but a breach of one of the components of the x.509 public key infrastructure in use on the Internet. A delegated registration authority for Comodo was breached by a hacker who was using stolen account credentials.

So, is it worth investigating SSL alternatives? While EV certificates provide a more reliable binding of the organization requesting the certificate to the certificate than non-EV certificates, EV certificates do not provide comprehensive Web security. SSL certainly is important to providing Web security, but it is only one part of comprehensive strategy. Other components that should be included in Web security programs include secure Web programming languages and frameworks, secure programming practices, strong authentication, Web-application firewalls, strong Web-application security, and other technologies. The OWASP Top 10 is a good place to start when looking into Web security.

There has been some work done in trusted identities on the Internet, which are thought to provide some Web security, but, even so, they are still only one part of the process. The next generation of online security is most likely going to center around secure Web programming languages and frameworks, and secure programming practices, which might include ratings of third-party applications for trustworthiness by vendors in centralized marketplaces. This, however, doesn’t address the client-side vulnerabilities that hackers used to compromise Comodo in the first place

This was last published in August 2011

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