Let’s Encrypt. Less Green ?

Letsencrypt.com is a service conceived to reduce the friction in enabling HTTPS on a website, by automating SSL certificate creation, validation, signing, installation and renewal. The server certificate setup which used to take hours can be done in a minute. Encryption will reduce the incidence of man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, which can easily insert or modify the javascript in transit.

Some of this is driven by Mozilla and its large public backers with perhaps an interest in showing the green bar and lock for more websites. A self-signed cert would also provide free encryption, prevent MITM attacks and be easy to setup but would throw an untrusted connection alert to the user.

So is LetsEncrypt encryption enough to show a green bar for a website ? Because regular certification schemes require a purchase, one has to go through a credit card verification step before being issued their cert. Certs with Extended Validation have more steps to go through. There are three types of certs based on level of validation – DV, OV, EV. Doman Validation (DV) does not try to check identity of the user and is what LetsEncrypt automates using a challenge-response scheme. Clicking on websites which use LetsEncrypt DV confirms that they display a green lock/bar (using firefox).

The problem with a widely accepted CA which has a zero cost barrier for setting up HTTPS is similar to that with the free precursor to OpenDNS.  A number of less than trustworthy websites can set themselves up as mirror images of trustworthy websites and send phishing attacks by email or sms, and an end-user has no way of telling the difference. Here’s a link on how to do just such a phishing attack with LetsEncrypt. So is LetsEncrypt making the web less secure ?

It’s true that the large number of CAs with their diverse validation mechanisms makes the existing scheme not so great – especially when CAs are compromised and/or issue bad certs (e.g Superfish, Comodo, NIC). However one could inspect the CA trusted authority and if there was reason to believe it is not trustworthy – e.g. see this pic (Chris Palmer), one could avoid clicking the link.

I think the average user should receive a better visual indication on the level of trust provided by a LetsEncrypt cert that has undergone a lower level of validation by design. Use a less green color ?

End users should be more aware of the certification process and get into the habit of explicitly checking Cert chains for HTTPS by clicking on the green lock displayed next to the URL.

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