In 2005, one of my first projects on the Internet Explorer team was improving the user-experience for HTTPS sites (“SSLUX”).
Our first task was to change the certificate error experience from the confusing and misleading modal dialog box:
… to something that more clearly conveyed the risk and which more clearly discouraged users from accepting invalid certificates. We quickly settled upon using a blocking page for bad certificates, a pattern seen in all major browsers today.
Next, we wanted to elevate the security information from the lowly lock buried at the bottom of the window (at best, since the status bar could be hidden entirely):
As a UI element, the lock resonated with users, but it wasn’t well understood (“I look for the lock and if it’s there, I’m safe”). We felt it was key to ensure that users not only saw that the connection was secure, but also with whom a secure connection had been made. This was especially important as some enterprising phishers had started obtaining HTTPS certificates for their spoofing sites, with domain names like BankOfTheVVest.com. Less urgently, we also wanted to help users understand that a secure connection didn’t necessarily mean the site is safe – the common refrain was that we’d happily set up a secure connection to a site run by the Russian Mafia, so long as the user recognized who they were talking to.
We decided to promote the HTTPS certificate information to a new UI element next to the address bar1. Called the “Trust Badge”, the button would prominently display the information about the owner and issuer of the HTTPS certificate, and clicking it would allow users to examine the certificate in full:
Displaying the Issuer of the certificate was deemed especially important– we knew some CAs were doing a much better job than others. High-volume-Low-vetting CAs’ $20 certificates were, to users, indistinguishable from the certificates from CAs who did a much more thorough job of vetting their applicants (usually at a much higher price point). The hope was that the UI would both shame lazy CAs and also provide a powerful branding incentive for those doing a good job.
We were pretty excited to show off our new work in IE7 Beta 1, but five months before our beta shipped, Opera beat us to it with Opera 8 beta 2 with a UI that was nearly identical to what we were building.
During those five months, however, we spoke to some of the Certificate Authorities in the Microsoft Root CA program and mentioned that we’d be making some changes to IE’s certificate UI. They expressed excitement to hear that their names would no longer be buried in the depths of a secondary dialog, but cautioned: “Just so long as you don’t do what Opera did.”
“Why’s that?” we asked innocently.
“Well, they show the Subject organization and location information in their UI.”
“And that’s a problem because…” we prompted.
“Well, we don’t validate any of the information in the certificate beyond the domain name.” came the reply.
“But you omit any fields you don’t validate, right?” we asked with growing desperation.
“Nah, we just copy ‘em over.”
After the SSLUX feature team picked our collective jaws off the floor, we asked around and determined that, yes, the ecosystem “race to the bottom” had been well underway over the preceding few years, and so-called “Domain validation” (DV) of certificates was extremely prevalent. While not all DV certificates contained inaccurate information, there was no consistent behavior across CAs.
Those CAs who were doing a good job of vetting certificates were eager to work with browsers to help users recognize their products, and even the “cheap” CAs felt that their vetting was better than that of their competitors2. Soon the group that evolved into the CA/Browser forum was born, pulling in stakeholders of all types (technologists, policy wonks, lawyers) from all over the industry (Microsoft, Mozilla, Konquerer, etc). Meetings were had. And more meetings. And calls. And much sniping and snarking. And more meetings. Eventually, the version 1.0 guidelines for a new sort of certificate were adopted. These Extended Validation (nee “Enhanced Validation”, nee “High Assurance”) certificates required specific validation steps that every CA would be required to undertake.
EV certificates were far from perfect, but we thought they were a great first step toward fixing the worst problems in the ecosystem.
Browsers would clearly identify when a connection was secured with EV (IE flood-filled the address bar with green) to improve user confidence and provide sites with a business reason to invest (time and money) in a certificate with more vetting. For the EV UI treatment, browsers could demand sites and CAs use stronger algorithms and support features like revocation checking. Importantly, this new class of certificates finally gave browsers a stick to wield against popular CAs who did a poor job—in the past, threats to remove a CA from the trust store rang hollow, because the CA knew that users would blame the browser vendor more than the CA (“Why do I care if bad.com got a certificate, good.com should work fine!”); with EV, browsers could strip the EV UX from a CA (leading their paying customers to demand refunds) without issuing an “Internet Death Sentence” for the entire CA itself.
Our feature was looking great. Then the knives really came out.
…to be continued…
1 Other SSLUX investments, like improving the handling of Mixed Content, were not undertaken until later releases.
2 Multiple CAs who individually came to visit Redmond for meetings brought along fraudulent certificates they’d tricked their competitors to issue in our names, perhaps not realizing how shady this made them look.