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Symantec certificate authority aims for more delays on browser trust

Is the Symantec certificate authority operation too big to fail?

That seems to be the message the security giant is sending in its latest response to a proposal from the browser community to turn over Symantec certificate authority operations to one or more third parties starting August 8. Doing so has become a requirement for Symantec to be retained in Google Chrome, Mozilla and Opera browser trusted root stores and to regain trust in its PKI operations.

Google, Mozilla and Opera seem to be united in agreement with the proposal from the Chrome developer team, under which Symantec would cooperate with the third-party CAs while at the same time re-certifying its extended validation certificates and revoking trust in extended validation certificates issued after Jan. 1, 2015.

“[W]e understand that any failure of our SSL/TLS certificates to be recognized by popular browsers could disrupt the business of our customers,” Symantec wrote in its blog post responding to Google’s proposal. “In that light, we appreciate that Google’s current proposal does not immediately pose compatibility or interoperability challenges for the vast majority of users.”

At first glance, Symantec appeared to praise the latest proposal from Chrome, noting it allows their customers, “for the most part, to have an uninterrupted and unencumbered experience.” However, the CA giant raised issues on almost all of the actions called for in the proposal, stating “there are some aspects of the current proposal that we believe need to be changed before we can reasonably and responsibly implement a plan that involves entrusting parts of our CA operations to a third party.”

Google’s proposal requires that new Symantec-chaining certificates be issued by “independently operated third-parties” starting August 8, 2017; Google’s timetable requires the transition be complete by Feb. 1, 2018, with all Symantec certificates issued and validated by those third-parties — although Symantec is making its case that the timetable is too short.

Symantec’s strategy seems to be to continue to seek further reductions in the limits placed on existing certificates, while dragging out the process — a tactic that reduces the impact of removing untrusted certificates as the questionable certificates continue aging and expiring on their own, without any further action on the part of the Symantec certificate authority operation.

The gist of the argument is that as “the largest issuer of EV and OV certificates in the industry,” the Symantec certificate authority is so much larger than its competitors that “no other single CA operates at the scale nor offers the broad set of capabilities that Symantec offers today.” In fact, over the course of several months, Symantec has frequently cited the size of its CA business and customer base in pushing back against Google’s and Mozilla’s proposals.

In other words, the Symantec certificate authority is so big that you can forget about having a CA partner ready to issue Symantec certificates by August 8. “Suitable CA partners” will need to be identified, vetted and selected; requests for proposals must be solicited and reviewed; and even then, Symantec will still need “time to put in place the governance, business and legal structures necessary to ensure the appropriate accountability and oversight for the sub-CA proposal to be successful.”

And even then, Symantec said, after it partners with one or more sub-CAs, all of the involved parties will need to do even more work to engineer the new operating model — and once that is done, there’s the need for extensive testing.

“Based on our initial research, we believe the timing laid out above is not achievable given the magnitude of the transition that would need to occur,” Symantec wrote.

What kind of timetable will work for Symantec?

Symantec can’t give any firm estimates for how long it will take to comply with Google’s proposal until Symantec’s candidate third-party partners respond to its requests for proposals. Those are due at the end of June, Symantec said.

After that, there’s the question of “ramp-up time,” the time Symantec’s third-party providers need for building infrastructure and authentication capabilities, which “may be greater than four months.”

“Symantec serves certain international markets that require language expertise in order to perform validation tasks,” the company wrote. “Any acceptable partner would also need to service these markets.” Signing up multiple CAs capable of serving these different markets will “require multiple contract negotiations and multiple technical integrations.”

Alternatively, Symantec could “[p]artner with a single sub-CA, which would require such CA to build up the compliant and reliable capacity necessary to take over our CA operations in terms of staff and infrastructure.”

Symantec did not indicate which alternative it preferred.

Symantec stated that “designing, developing, and testing new auth/verif/issuance logic, in addition to creating an orchestration layer to interface with multiple sub-CAs will take an estimated 14 calendar weeks. This does not include the engineering efforts required by the sub-CAs, systems integration and testing with each sub-CA, or testing end-to-end with API integrated customers and partners, although some of this effort can occur in parallel.”

It’s not clear whether this task is part of the ramp-up time Symantec referred to, but there’s also the question of revalidating “over 200,000 organizations in full, in order to maintain full certificate validity for OV and EV certificates.” Symantec needed more than four months to fully revalidate CrossCert’s active certificate issuances — about 30,000 certificates and far fewer organizations — that were issued by Symantec’s former SSL/TLS RA partners.

Could Symantec be purposely dragging its heels to mitigate the impact on itself and its customers through delaying the deadline for distrusting Symantec certificates until the questionable ones have expired? Or could Symantec be attempting to whittle down the pain points in Google’s plan by continually pushing back on them while at the same time asking for deadline extensions?

It’s unclear what Symantec’s strategy is, and the company is only addressing the ongoing controversy through official company statements (Symantec has not responded to requests for further comments or interview). But the clock is ticking, and the longer action is delayed, the harder it will likely be to fix the situation.

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