Mozilla garners praise over Firefox security feature

Carnegie Mellon Firefox add-on aimed at avoiding user confusion, hacker attacks

The debate over the self-signed certificate issue in Firefox 3.0 has fostered an add-on from Carnegie Mellon researchers and it seems a prevailing tide that Mozilla is headed down the right path.

Over the past few weeks the back-and-forth debate has intensified over a new security feature in Firefox 3.0 that throws out a warning page to users when a Web site's SSL certificate is expired or has not been issued by a "trusted third party". Critics contend the feature is confusing to users, fosters the impression that Web sites are broken, and dictates which certificate authorities (CA) are trusted and which are not.

Carnegie Mellon University on Monday posted a free add-on to Mozilla that helps bypass the warning page without compromising Firefox's intended security enhancement.

Comments to Network World's story outlining the original debate over Firefox's handling of self-signed and expired certificates seems to indicate that many think Mozilla is doing the right thing, including issuing its warning message on self-signed certificates issued even by seemingly trusted sources such as the US Department of Defense.

Although most of the comments were from anonymous posters (not surprising for security folks), the overwhelming majority supported the need for tight security despite the burden it might place on users.

"Sorry folks, Mozilla got it right!" said one poster who identified himself as working in information security. "I have NO problems with the way that Firefox does this (they MIGHT want to provide more "user friendly" explanation text, but I have no problems with it as it sits!)."

Others also chimed in on defaulting on the side of tightened security.

"I agree with the warning -- long overdue in my opinion," wrote another poster.

"If any institution can't fork out (USD) $15 for a real cert, then perhaps it should take down its web server and communicate with its customers via first class mail," wrote reader David Backeberg. "Finally, there's nothing stopping you from personally adding a DoD CA to your browser list of trusted CAs."

One reader, likely from Venafi, cited a study underwritten by the vendor showing that mismanaged encryption technologies do negatively influence the behavior of browser users. The conclusions show that 14 percent of certificates across the Fortune 1000 are expired on any given day. In addition, since 2005 there has been a 67 percent increase in expired certificates among Internet sites, from 8.4 percent to 14 percent. The study also shows that 48 percent of users feel comfortable connecting to a Web site of a company they trust, perhaps validating the exception rules available in Firefox 3.0 or the workaround available with the Carnegie-Mellon add-on called Perspectives.

Perspectives sets up a system of notaries, according to a response to the story by the Carnegie Mellon researchers.

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John Fontana

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