Web-based businesses face a crisis in consumer confidence because of phishing scams. But because of a new kind of SSL certificate, Web sites will be able to definitively demonstrate their identity, and customers will be able to confirm the identity of trusted sites.
Extended Validation SSL (EV SSL) certificates represent more than a year's effort by an industry consortium called the CA/Browser Forum. These certificates became available last month for the benefit of Web businesses and site visitors. EV SSL certificates can facilitate online commerce by increasing visitor confidence and greatly reducing phishing's effectiveness.
Many online shoppers understand that the little lock on the browser means transmissions are encrypted and therefore protected from spying eyes, but how do they know they reached a reputable site?
Two issues must be addressed. The first is to identify a new category of SSL certificate that ensures a site owner's identity, and the second is a browser interface that makes it easy to see the identity when it's known and recognize when it isn't. EV SSL certificates are the new certificates in question.
The CA/Browser Forum, with more than 20 leading browser manufacturers and SSL providers, has created a standardized authentication process that any certificate authority must follow for EV certificates, including independent audit to confirm compliance.
The forum built this process on existing practices demonstrated successfully in more than a decade of widespread use. The standard goes into great detail on three main authentication legs: organization, domain and requestor.
The certificate authority must establish that the requesting organization is a legally established business or nonprofit on record with the local government. It must establish this organization's ownership or right to use the Web domain in question, and it must establish that the requesting individual is employed by the organization and has the authority to obtain SSL certificates. Each authentication step depends on independent, outside information obtained from reliable third-party sources.
Once a certificate authority completes this authentication, it may issue a certificate with EV SSL status. This certificate operates exactly like a traditional SSL certificate. Browsers not built to recognize EV certificates (including Internet Explorer 6, Firefox 2 and their predecessors) behave as with non-EV certificates. New EV-compatible browsers, however, display these certificates in highly visible and informative ways, starting with Internet Explorer 7.
Internet Explorer 7 has added interface conventions to enhance site owner identification, most obviously the green address bar. When an Internet Explorer 7 browser accesses a page with an EV SSL certificate, it changes the address bar's background to green, which indicates a site has undergone high-level identity authentication.
Internet Explorer 7 also contains the security status bar. On pages with EV SSL certificates, it displays the organization name, which comes directly from the certificate. Because the certificate authority verified this name and the browser displays it in its own interface, visitors can rely on it.
Internet Explorer 7 detects an EV certificate through a marker in the certificate called an OID. In real time the browser confirms that this SSL root has an EV OID in good standing and then displays the EV interface features. This architecture makes it possible to adjust a certificate authority's EV status in real time. For example, if a certificate authority consistently fails at reliably performing EV authentication, browsers could stop detecting these certificates as EV certificates, protecting the overall trustworthiness of EV SSL.
Many industry watchers expect EV certificates to significantly hinder phishing and instill confidence in site visitors. By providing a reliable, highly visible indicator of site identity, this standard makes it possible for visitors to take control of their security.
Tim Callan is director of product marketing for VeriSign.