Since we announced Let’s Encrypt we’ve often been asked how we’ll ensure that we don’t issue certificates for phishing and malware sites. The concern most commonly expressed is that having valid HTTPS certificates helps these sites look more legitimate, making people more likely to trust them.

Deciding what to do here has been tough. On the one hand, we don’t like these sites any more than anyone else does, and our mission is to help build a safer and more secure Web. On the other hand, we’re not sure that certificate issuance (at least for Domain Validation) is the right level on which to be policing phishing and malware sites in 2015. This post explains our thinking in order to encourage a conversation about the CA ecosystem’s role in fighting these malicious sites.

CAs Make Poor Content Watchdogs

Let’s Encrypt is going to be issuing Domain Validation (DV) certificates. On a technical level, a DV certificate asserts that a public key belongs to a domain – it says nothing else about a site’s content or who runs it. DV certificates do not include any information about a website’s reputation, real-world identity, or safety. However, many people believe the mere presence of DV certificate ought to connote at least some of these things.

Treating a DV certificate as a kind of “seal of approval” for a site’s content is problematic for several reasons.

First, CAs are not well positioned to operate anti­-phishing and anti-malware operations – or to police content more generally. They simply do not have sufficient ongoing visibility into sites’ content. The best CAs can do is check with organizations that have much greater content awareness, such as Microsoft and Google. Google and Microsoft consume vast quantities of data about the Web from massive crawling and reporting infrastructures. This data allows them to use complex machine learning algorithms (developed and operated by dozens of staff) to identify malicious sites and content.

Even if a CA checks for phishing and malware status with a good API, the CA’s ability to accurately express information regarding phishing and malware is extremely limited. Site content can change much faster than certificate issuance and revocation cycles, phishing and malware status can be page-specific, and certificates and their related browser UIs contain little, if any, information about phishing or malware status. When a CA doesn’t issue a certificate for a site with phishing or malware content, users simply don’t see a lock icon. Users are much better informed and protected when browsers include anti-phishing and anti-malware features, which typically do not suffer from any of these limitations.

Another issue with treating DV certificates as a “seal of approval” for site content is that there is no standard for CA anti­-phishing and anti-malware measures beyond a simple blacklist of high-­value domains, so enforcement is inconsistent across the thousands of CAs trusted by major browsers. Even if one CA takes extraordinary measures to weed out bad sites, attackers can simply shop around to different CAs. The bad guys will almost always be able to get a certificate and hold onto it long enough to exploit people. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated the best CA anti­-phishing and anti-malware programs are, it only matters how good the worst are. It’s a “find the weakest link” scenario, and weak links aren’t hard to find.

Browser makers have realized all of this. That’s why they are pushing phishing and malware protection features, and evolving their UIs to more accurately reflect the assertions that certificates actually make.

TLS No Longer Optional

When they were first developed in the 1990s, HTTPS and SSL/TLS were considered “special” protections that were only necessary or useful for particular kinds of websites, like online banks and shopping sites accepting credit cards. We’ve since come to realize that HTTPS is important for almost all websites. It’s important for any website that allows people to log in with a password, any website that tracks its users in any way, any website that doesn’t want its content altered, and for any site that offers content people might not want others to know they are consuming. We’ve also learned that any site not secured by HTTPS can be used to attack other sites.

TLS is no longer the exception, nor should it be. That’s why we built Let’s Encrypt. We want TLS to be the default method for communication on the Web. It should just be a fundamental part of the fabric, like TCP or HTTP. When this happens, having a certificate will become an existential issue, rather than a value add, and content policing mistakes will be particularly costly. On a technical level, mistakes will lead to significant down time due to a slow issuance and revocation cycle, and features like HSTS. On a philosophical and moral level, mistakes (innocent or otherwise) will mean censorship, since CAs would be gatekeepers for online speech and presence. This is probably not a good role for CAs.

Our Plan

At least for the time being, Let’s Encrypt is going to check with the Google Safe Browsing API before issuing certificates, and refuse to issue to sites that are flagged as phishing or malware sites. Google’s API is the best source of phishing and malware status information that we have access to, and attempting to do more than query this API before issuance would almost certainly be wasteful and ineffective.

We’re going to implement this phishing and malware status check because many people are not comfortable with CAs entirely abandoning anti-phishing and anti-malware efforts just yet, even for DV certificates. We’d like to continue the conversation for a bit longer before we abandon what many people perceive to be an important CA behavior, even though we disagree.

Conclusion

The fight against phishing and malware content is an important one, but it does not make sense for CAs to be on the front lines, at least when it comes to DV certificates. That said, we’re going to implement checks against the Google Safe Browsing API while we continue the conversation.

We look forward to hearing what you think. Please let us know.