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Extended Validation Certificates: A change for the better (but not enough)

June 15, 2007

On June 12th, 2007, the CA/Browser Forum (a group that consists of leading certificate authorities and browser vendors) ratified the first version of the Extended Validation (EV) SSL Guidelines. The goal of the guidelines is to introduce a new type of certificate, Extended Validation Certificate, with intent to standardise the certificate issuance process.

Those of you that remember the early days of SSL certificates will find that the "new" process is pretty much identical to the one we had to undergo years ago. Things such as verifying legal existence, identity, registration number, right to use the domain name--are all there. There is one crucial difference, though. This time the process is mandatory whereas before, it turns out, it was merely a matter of choice. No wonder the quality of the vetting had deteriorated over the years as companies fought for the market by lowering prices.

There are many who do not like the new Extended Validation Certificates. They usually say the new type of certificate will not solve our problems. And that they are merely a way for the certificate authorities to extract more money from their customer base. While I agree with the former, I do not necessarily agree with the latter (but this is not to say the CAs will not be happy to collect the extra funds).

The point is that a solid vetting process should have been a mandatory requirement from the start. The fact that we missed the opportunity to do the right thing then does not mean we have to continue living with the mistake. It is true--the new certificate does fall short of solving our problems. But, guess what, that was never the intention. Citing from the EV Certificate Guidelines (page 13):

(c) Excluded Purposes EV Certificates focus only on the identity of the Subject named in the Certificate, and not on the behavior of the Subject. As such, an EV Certificate is not intended to provide any assurances, or otherwise represent or warrant:
  1. That the Subject named in the EV Certificate is actively engaged in doing business;
  2. That the Subject named in the EV Certificate complies with applicable laws;
  3. That the Subject named in the EV Certificate is trustworthy, honest, or reputable in its business dealings; or
  4. That it is "safe" to do business with the Subject named in the EV Certificate.

SSL certificates have nothing to do with trust. (Admittedly, it's a fact we didn't fully appreciate when they were introduced.) Their purpose is simply to identify the party on the other side of the communication channel. For trust we need to turn to other methods. Actually, we developed perfectly good methods to do this in real life. For example, most people take into account the brand name of the store or that of the manufacturer. You are going to be very comfortable buying from Amazon because you know the company. By the same token, you are probably going to think twice before buying from a badly-designed, badly-built web site you've just run across.

There is one aspect where Extended Validation Certificates fall short, and that's the implementation and the changes in the browser user interfaces. To accommodate the new type of certificate browsers have resorted to displaying the sites protected with such certificates in a slightly different way. There are two problems with this. One is that a normal user stands to gain very little from the change. The other is that, even for the small gain that can be achieved, a huge marketing effort is going to be required to explain the difference. This effort is not only going to be expensive but also take time--a lot of time. It something we can successfully do maybe once or twice in a decade. The EV Certificates are simply not worth it.

A far better solution would have been to, slowly and quietly, reform the certificate issuance process. Let the old certificates expire and start issuing better ones today. While that is happening figure out a way to deal with our real problems and inform the normal Internet users only once we are happy we've done the right thing.