Why I chose UniFi vs AmpliFi HD


I just had a brief exchange with a friend on Twitter who suggested that AmpliFi HD, not UniFi was the product Ubiquiti was building for users like me.

I thought folks might be interested in why I didn’t go that route so here is another post 🙂

I did look at AmpliFi HD, in fact, my eldest son tried to convince me to ditch the Google WiFi for AmpliFi HD shortly after it came out.

When I looked into the AmpliFi HD, my conclusion was that it was a less well featured (e.g. it didn’t seem to have the home automation, parental controls, etc features) Google WiFi with better radios and I was largely satisfied with the radio coverage I had with Google WiFi so I was not compelled to make the change.

One of the pain points I did have with my Google WiFi solution was that I had to find places to stash four Google WiFi access points to get sufficient coverage for all the devices in my network. The devices themselves look OK but we really do try to hide all the tech in the house and live by the motto “less is more” so this is a pain we did feel.

The AmpliFi didn’t really have a solution to this problem either, in fact I now probably needed more, smaller units for proper coverage. The upside of which is that those smaller units would have been less visible which would have been nice. On the other hand, I find the kids are often unplugging things in the house to free up outlets or to simply mess with me and the design of the AmpliFi mesh units are such I feared that would happen a lot.

When I looked at the UI on the AmpliFi products my conclusion was it was a stripped down UniFi vs a product designed as a high-end WiFi product. This is in contrast to the Google WiFi which felt like it was a sincere attempt at rethinking the whole user experience.

This combined with the lack of integration with a larger ecosystem (home automation, etc) made it really hard to justify migrating off of Google WiFi.

My conclusion (right or otherwise) from my research was at best I would end up with marginally better coverage and a new set of limitations as a trade-off. It just did not justify the change.

When I re-visited the decision to replace my wireless deployment I was more-or-less fed-up. I did not want to mess with this again anytime soon so I decided to go big or go home. This led me to the switch to UniFi which in turn also led me to the switch to Protect.

If I was the target user the AmpliFi team was looking for I think they missed a few things:

  • I want less clutter, not more, the square design of the AmpliFi presumes public display of a piece of electronics I don’t want that.
  • The mesh does not support wired backhaul, and the distance between where it would be natural to use them would be quite far. Wireless backhaul had caused me some pain with Google WiFi so I was not sure this would work well for me.
  • I also didn’t want 4-6 outlets being occupied in the house, even though the mesh adapters are smaller than the Google Wifi, more is still a pain, especially given kids are not likely to leave them alone.
  • I have some basic home automation and the AmpliFi product doesn’t offer any story here.
  • I liked the parental controls I had with Google WiFi and it seemed I could approximate that but not in an easy way.
  • I liked how I can manage my parents and cousins WiFi’s in Google WiFi; it gives me a one-stop shop for how to deal with issues when people call me. I recall coming to the conclusion this was missing and if nothing else the friction of replacing their WiFi’s to be uniform would have been a barrier.
  • I have Fiber and I understood you had to run the device in bridge mode in this case service which takes away a lot of the features of the AmpliFi HD system.
  • The CloudKey Gen2 Plus having the built-in NVR meant I could consolidate how I dealt with cameras at the same time; one less thing to deal with and after a year the cost savings would allow me to break even and later save.

I basically concluded that my home was “too big” for the AmpliFi HD and that the incremental benefit of switching to it from Google WiFi was not worth the effort.

This could be marketing, this could also be poor product planning, or maybe I was just not the target customer. It is hard to say without knowing a bit more about how the product planning was done here.

In any event as the earlier post states, I’ve gone all UniFi now and I look forward to seeing how that works for us over the next year.

Google Wifi + NEST Cameras vs Ubiquiti for Home Use

I recently made the switch from Google WIFI and NEST Cameras to Ubiquiti Unfi and Protect. A few things motivated these changes and I wanted to talk about them in this blog post.

Background

Google WiFi

The most significant motivator was some network reliability issues that I was experiencing on the Google WiFi. In the end, the problem was not related to the Google WiFi but I could not diagnose without logs which the Google Wifi encrypts. Though I was able to walk through the issue with Google support and ultimately able to localize the issue it took several days of back and forth and required me walking them through exactly what to look for.

The Google Wifi actually performed great overall but we do have an above average number of devices in our house and sometimes we would experience what I believed to be congestion. This is likely because Google Wifi only supports SU-MIMO, the UniFi solution, on the other hand, supports MU‑MIMO. MU-MIMO allows a Wi-Fi router to communicate with multiple devices simultaneously. This decreases the time each device has to wait for a signal and dramatically speeds up the network as a result.

I also experienced some cases where the Google WiFi was falling back to the Mesh wireless solution even though I had a wired backhaul. I never figured out why this was happening but it was not a huge issue.

Finally, we have an outbuilding that is currently using our guest network but since it is on a Guest Network it can not do any IOT style networking where one device talks to another. To address this I needed to either set it up with a physically isolated WiFi of its own or configure a VLAN which I could not do with the Google WiFi.

As a plus, since it is a product designed for home it has features like parental controls which are useful and though it could it could use some work on usability it was actually quite useful.

To be honest, I can not say enough positive things about the Google WiFi, it is a great product that for 99% of people is probably perfect but the sad reality is that we started to outgrow it.

Google NEST Cameras

We had five Google NEST Outdoor Cameras and a Hello doorbell at our house. They worked great and were pretty reliable. We really only had four complaints about these devices.

The first of which is that they did not support POE, this meant when we set them up we had to buy USB to POE adapters and find ways to hide the long and bulky USB power cable they came with.

The second issue is that some of the cameras were on the absolute edge of our wireless network and we would, in rough weather, lose the wireless connection as a result. We did buy another Google WiFi to help with this issue but again it would have been ideal if the cameras were POE based and then this wouldn’t have been an issue.

The third issue is that the move notifications tended to be a bit annoying, we did configure zones help manage this but it was still more obnoxious than I would have liked. To configure zones we had to pay the per camera monthly fee also, this did feel a little bit like extortion — e.g. pay us not to annoy you with notifications.

The fourth and final issue was that the cost and nature of cloud storage. With a total of six cameras, the yearly cost of the NEST solution was significant. It also was dependent on cloud storage which meant my data was being stored exclusively on the cloud. As a Google employee, I have faith in the companies practices relative to managing this data but the recent issues with Ring and Alexa from Amazon poorly managing the data they store relative to their competitive offerings did give me pause.

The reality is that if it were not for the Google WiFi change I discuss above I would have likely kept the NEST Cameras. This is because, despite the above, I was pretty happy with the solution but since I was buying into the Ubiquiti ecosystem it felt like unifying on their solution would not only address the above concerns but overall make things simpler to manage in the long run.

UniFi Wireless

Despite being a very advanced product capability wise it has a pretty easy to use interface for managing. I wouldn’t recommend putting the concepts it exposes in front of the type of users I end up supporting in my personal life but the reality is once it is set up you never really have to deal with that stuff.

Since it is really designed as a business solution and not a home solution it is missing some features that a modern home user might expect. For example, it has no way to share IOT devices as Google WiFi does. It is not integrated with home automation systems either, for example, you can’t use presence and activity of devices to infer if people are home as part of the way you configure your home automation. And it has no “parental controls” concept, though you can manually configure something roughly equivalent.

With that said, since UniFi was designed for businesses, many of its access points are physically attached to the house. This means you need to run wires in walls but it also means you do not have a pile of devices sitting around on horizontal surfaces.

It also does smart channel and power management so you don’t need to worry about such things, so similar to Google WiFi it is largely a set it and forget it solution.

What you end up with when you go with a UniFi based solution is a professional, flexible, moderately easy to use, high-performance solution that is physically installed and as a result non-intrusive to the overall environment.

UniFi Protect

Ubiquiti has two video solutions, Unfi Video that is slowly being replaced and UniFi Protect. I am using the UniFi Protect offering as it is integrated with the CloudKey Gen 2 Plus which I am using to manage my wireless.

The Ubiquiti cameras I chose are the G3, mainly because they were the cheapest of the set and seemed approximately comparable to the NEST Cameras they were replacing. This was important as I intended to sell my NEST cameras to cover the cost of the change.

The G3’s do not have as nice an industrial design as the NEST cameras, they also look more commercial and essentially have no market of third-party accessories (for example skins to obscure the cameras) but they look reasonable enough.

The G3 also does not have a speaker (some other models do, for example, the G3 Micro, though it is an indoor camera) so there is no chance of two-way communication, though they do have a microphone so you can record what’s going on with the video.

I think the biggest gap in the G3 cameras relative to the NEST is they have no zoom, you have to step up to the G3 PRO which is 3x the cost of the G3 to get this.

The upside of this solution over the NEST can be summarized as:

  • No monthly fee per camera,
  • Cheaper cost per camera,
  • Data is stored locally vs on a public cloud.

There are some things that I will miss from the NEST solution, in particular:

  • Using computer vision to analyze the video, for example, do not send notifications when it is a family member, send notifications when a familiar face is seen, or ignore movement unless you see a person (some of these capabilities are only available with the new NEST Cam IQ camera).
  • It is not integrated with home automation systems, Alexa, Google Home or Siri. For example with Google Home, you can ask Google what is happening on a given camera and it will display it on your TV.
  • Having an integrated doorbell solution. I will be keeping NEST Hello, for now, to fill this gap, though having one camera there and the rest in another system is far from ideal.
  • There are no applications to integrate the cameras with AppleTV or ChromeCast so getting the cameras displayed on these devices will involve casting a browser session which lame.

With all that said, the TCO for a multi-camera NEST system is pretty high if you want to retain video and the Ubiquiti solution addresses this effectively.

Wishlist For Ubiquiti

I am installing this system into a home, and that’s not squarely where Ubiquiti is aiming this product at. With that said many new homes get Ubiquiti installs now and if I was in the product team at Ubiquiti I would seriously be looking at what I could do to better serve that market.

Based on my current experience with the product here are some things I think would be nice to have from Ubiquiti.

  • A doorbell camera, it is a shame I need to have to keep the NEST camera to have a complete solution.
  • There should be better camera choices; not having a zoom or speaker in a security camera in 2019 is lame.
  • It is disappointing there is no affordable 4k camera option when consumer products do offer them.
  • I would love to see a less obvious industrial design for the cameras that would work well with skins so you can hide the cameras more easily.
  • Produce a rack kit that allows placing both the security gateway and the CloudKey in a single 1U rack location.
  • I would like to be able to put the Protect server and cameras on one VLAN leaving the network controller on another; they are two different security domains and shouldn’t have to be co-mingled like they are currently [added this to the list after the article was posted].
  • There should be better integration between SDN and Protect, for example, I should not have to set aliases in both manually [added this to the list after the article was posted].
  • If I am going to have to have a Nest Hello and the Protect software it would be ideal if the Nest Hello was integrated into Protect [added this to the list after the article was posted].
  • Integration with Alexa, Siri and Google Home should be in the box.
  • Basic computer vision capabilities in-box, or at least able to opt in to use a cloud CV solution such as Google Vision API or Amazon Rekognition to do intelligent filtering of movement signals in the video.
  • Register the UbiquitiHome.com domain, do dynamic domain registration for subdomains/hosts as part of the on-boarding experience in setup, use Let’s Encrypt to get a certificate for that domain and do away with the self-signed certificate that is currently used.
  • Since the product line is geared towards small businesses and I suspect a good chunk of the home user market is enthusiasts it would be great to have a robust REST API with Webhooks available so custom solutions could easily be added without going into the database to extend capabilities.
  • With a robust set of REST APIs, they could offer a marketplace of applications that users could use to integrate with other systems (IFTT, Google Home, Alexa, etc).
  • Alarm.com integration of NEST Protect would probably be a real winner for the enthusiast community and I would explore a partnership there if I were Ubiquiti.

In Summary

Though I am technically not even done with my Ubiquiti journey it is clear that so far the Ubiquiti networking solution is technically superior but their camera offering still leaves a bit to be desired.

It does seem with the introduction of Ubiquiti Protect which currently has a 20 camera limit, they are looking at how they can better serve users like me. That said, only time will tell how far they go towards providing solutions that are competitive with the consumer-focused offerings.

ResortQuest, Wyndham, Home Away, 2 inches of water, vomit stench and bad management.

We recently had a family vacation in Miramar Beach Florida, where we stayed at the SurfSide in unit #502. The experience was, shall we say less than we expected. The management company was incompetent, did not meet their legal requirements when responding to an emergency and left us in a bad situation despite a ton of attempts on our side to work with them.

To top things off HomeAway refused to provide even the most minimal levels of assistance when the management company failed to live up to their obligations.

Bellow is my unedited review of that experience, hopefully, it will help someone in the future.

This is our second stop while in the Destin area. Our first was as a described and great experience provided by Southern Vacation Rentals, this stay, however, left us, literally with a bad taste in our mouth.

Pulling up to the building it was obvious it had seen better days but on other vacations, we have had similar thoughts and were pleasantly surprised when we got to the room.

This time, however, when we opened the door a sour smell reminiscent of dried vomit🤮 engulfed us. A quick inspection revealed that it originated from the couches and the rugs. They, like everything in this unit, are well used and poorly taken care of. It’s clear this is a rental unit where only tenants or service people visit as I have to believe a owner would take care of the things we had to deal with.

We contacted the management firm and they said they would send house cleaning to take care of the smell.  House cleaning did not show up, so to manage the smell we had to put the couch cushions and slips on the deck as it would not be possible to stay in here with that odor. We called again that night and were told someone would be here in the morning. They did not show.

The furniture is ready to be replaced, the refrigerator was dirty inside and out, to top it off the wires that power the light inside it are hanging out due to a cracked housing.

The unit appears to have been remodeled over a decade ago but only minimal maintenance has been done since then.

Though it is clear the room was lightly cleaned prior to our visit I doubt it’s had a real deep cleaning in a long time as there was splattered food on the wall and the drinking glasses were sticky so we washed them all on arrival.

To top off the above we tried to do a load of laundry and the washer flooded the apartment bathroom, hallway, master bedroom and the hallway leading to the unit.

We called the management firm and they said they could not get ahold of maintenance and asked us to spend our evening to clean up the water as best we can, which we did. They did offer to have someone come in the morning (sound familiar?) to take care of what’s left.

It was clear the management firm was concerned with the potential damage but they did not seem to care about our situation at all. Since they couldn’t reach maintenance we also could get no replacement towels so no showers in the morning.

I should note that it’s clear this flooding has happened before because the trim in the hallway of the unit shows clear signs of past water damage.

We asked the management firm to move us to a different unit, after all, if vomit stench and a flood were not enough to justify that what would be? Unfortunately, the best they could offer was one day at another unit a unit 30 minutes away having to return the next day. Since it was already midnight and it would have only been for that night we passed.

If you recall they said someone would come in the morning to take care of the flooding, you guessed it — they never showed up.

We called again in the evening and spoke to the manager for the site and he apologized for the lack of response on prior calls and promised someone would be here to clean up and provide us towels tonight since we have six people and no towels. Of course, no one showed with towels.

We also tried to warm milk in the microwave today but it too doesn’t work,  yet another work order has been filed.

On our last day, the manager contacted us asking if we had gotten the towels he had sent, we had not. A few minutes later towels do show up, we now have had enough towels for a week but we leave in the morning.

The manager did finally offer a concession for this ridiculousness, $150 for the inconvenience. It took three of us Three hours to clean up the water alone. So it looks like they are valuing our time at a little over $15 an hour, and could care less about the inconvenience (no towels, no clean clothes,  no microwave, disgusting odor, time lost doing basic housekeeping, time wasted trying to get them to do their jobs, etc) and then there is the intangible damage they did to our vacation they place no value on.

The reality is beyond the wasted time and inconvenience we were able to use less than half of this unit. The living room was largely unusable due to lack of a place to sit, the deck was at least 1/4 unusable as it held the stinky couch bits, there was no laundry, no cooking, and no towels.

I guess it’s only fair to share the good stuff too, while dealing with vomit stench,  cleaning up a massive amount of water and failing to use the appliances we had an opportunity to think about the  locations fantastic view, if you choose to stay here despite what I shared you will rest assured you will have an amazing view of the gulf and a nice deck to enjoy it from while your not cleaning up a mess.

 

What is Fortify and how does it work?

If you follow the W3C or web development, you probably know that the WebCrypto API was designed to provide fairly low-level cryptographic algorithms so that you could build web applications that interoperate with existing systems.

The idea being it was largely the cryptographic primitives that needed to be implemented natively and that the other layers of interoperability could be handled in pure Javascript when combined with good application security practices and new features like SRI.

While there are legitimate concerns over the use of cryptography in browser-based applications there are also legitimate uses. Afterall who doesn’t like to watch a film on Netflix now and again without having to run Flash?

For another example of an application that makes heavy use of WebCrypto take a look at 1Password which is one of the most popular password managers in use today. They use WebCrypto and the same origin security model of browsers to allow them to help manage their passwords locally and store the associated ciphertext on their servers.

The utility of WebCrypto does not end with applications though, many libraries, some by my company, Peculiar Ventures, leverage this raw cryptographic capability to make it easier for others to build applications that interoperate with their counterparts on other platforms. For example consider PKIjsXMLDSIG, XADESjs, 2key-ratchet and js-jose.

However powerful this new native cryptographic capability is, it intentionally left out providing access to local cryptographic certificates and key stores as well opted out of providing web applications access to smart cards and other security elements. I personally both agree with these decisions and understand why they were made but that is something for another post. With that said, that doesn’t mean those capabilities are not useful and that is where Fortify comes in.

So what is Fortify?

Fortify is a client application that you install that runs in the background as a tray application in Windows, OSX, and Linux that provides these missing capabilities to authorized applications.

It does this by binding to 127.0.0.1 and listening to a high-order well-known port for incoming requests. Browsers allow web applications to initiate sessions to this address, over that session a Fortify enabled application establishes a secure session and if approved by the user is allowed to access these missing capabilities.

How is this secure session established?

At the core of Fortify is a library called 2key-ratchet. This implements a `Double Ratchet` protocol similar to what is used by Signal. In this protocol each peer has an identity key pair, we use the public keys from each participant to compute a short numeric value since in the protocol the peers prove control of the respective private keys we know that once the keys are authenticated we are talking to the same “identity”.

Since 2key-ratchet uses WebCrypto we leverage the fact that keys generated in a web application are bound to the same origin, we also (when possible) utilize non-exportable keys to mitigate the risks of these approved keys from being stolen.

This gives us an origin bound identity for the web application that the Fortify client uses as the principal in an Access Control List. This means if you visit a new site (a new origin), even if operated by the same organization, you will need to approve their access to use Fortify.

For good measure (and browser compatibility) this exchange is also performed over a TLS session. At installation time a local CA is created, this CA is used to create an SSL certificate for 127.0.0.1. The private key of the CA is then deleted once the SSL certificate is created and the Root CA of the certificate chain is installed as a locally trusted CA. This prevents the CA from being abused to issue certificates for other origins.

What happens over this session?

The protocol used by Fortify use a /.wellknown/ (not yet registered) location for capability discovery. The core protocol itself is Protobuf based.

We call this protocol webcrypto-socket. You can think of the protocol as a Remote Procedure Call or (RPC) to the local cryptographic and certificate implementations in your operating system.

Architecturally what does the client look like?

The Fortify client is a Node.js application based on Electron and it accesses all cryptographic implementations via node-webcrypto-p11. This library was designed to provide a WebCrypto compatible API to Node.js applications but it also extends the WebCrypto API to provide basic access to certificate stores.

The Fortify client uses another Peculiar Ventures project called PVPKCS11 to access the OSX KeyStore, Mozilla NSS or Windows CryptoAPI via this PKCS#11 wrapper.

It also uses pcsclite to listen for a smart card or security token insertions and removals, when new insertions are detected it inspects the ATR of the card. If it is a known card the client attempts to load the PKCS#11 library associated with the card. If that succeeds events in the `webcrypto-socket` protocol are used to let the web application know about the availability of the new cryptographic and certificate provider.

Ironically, despite the complication of the PKCS#11 API, this approach enables the code to maintain a fairly easy to understand structure.

The application also includes a tray application that is used to help with debugging, access a test application and manage which domains can access the service.

So what can I do with it?

In the simplest case, you can think of Fortify as a replacement for the <keygen> tag.

Since the client SDK that implements the `webcrypto-socket` protocol is a superset of WebCrypto, with slight modifications, if you have an web application that uses WebCrypto you can also use locally enrolled certificates and/or smart cards.

Some of the scenarios we had in mind when building the Fortify client included:

— Enrolling for X.509 certificates over the web,

— Signing and encrypting/decrypting email or documents,

— Building certificate-based authentication schemes with a modern user experience.

Can I use this today?

Yes, it is feature complete and ready for you to take a look.

There are some examples on its usage here and you can find the documentation here.

It works on Windows 7+, OSX 10.12+, and Debian based Linux distributions, it also works on IE11, Edge, Safari, Chrome, and Firefox.

In general, you should consider this initial release of a Beta quality, for example I know we need to do additional testing with smart cards and make sure we have the metadata for each card so they work on each supported platform. Otherwise, we expect it to work largely as expected.

Is it Open Source?

Yes, all Peculiar Ventures related libraries to-date have been licensed as BSD or MIT and this is no different so you are free to do with them as you see fit.

What’s next?

Over the next year, we will gain enough confidence in the solution to declare it complete. We will also look at adding other useful like smart card password changes and unblocking at some point in the future.

Other than that, we are just looking for your feedback so we can refine the quality of the solution.

Thanks

I want to thank the members of the CASC for their support of this project and the many individuals from Twitter who provided feedback and testing.

What value can a third-party provide users when browsing the web?

While at the CA/Browser Forum I was asked by a friend if we wanted to replace EV with a new class of certificate what would that certificate look like?

My response was that I would frame the question differently. The “real” question is what problems does a typical user have that a third-party with the strengths of a CA could help with?

With this in mind, you need to first understand who this stereotypical user is, a software engineer may have different needs than a grocery store clerk. They may also have common needs, you won’t know that until you do research.

The only way to do reliable research on this topic is to actually work with those users to understand what their needs are. While this is much harder than it sounds due to biases introduced in such processes a real needs analysis requires that you start here.

With that said, I suspect this exercise would show a broad swath of the target users is concerned with these questions:

  • Will I have a good experience working with the people behind the website?
  • Do the people behind this website have a good reputation?
  • Are the people behind this website experts in their craft?
  • How do I figure out how to reach a real human when and if I need to?

I would put those concerns into the context of the interaction they will have with the website (buying a product, downloading software, etc).

With that understanding I would then try to understand what the strengths of the CA are, having been a CA for a long time I would say:

CAs are good at verifying claims relating to the subject of a certificate.

I would then try to map the identified problems and strengths together to see what potential value the CA could provide that user.

Again the right thing to do is formally do those above explorations but for the purpose of this post I suspect these exercises would find that:

  • When a user visits a website they may struggle to find out how to contact the sales/support for that business,
  • When a user visits a site for the first time it may be hard for them to determine what the companies true line of business is,
  • After a user previously visited a website and completed a transaction with it they sometimes need to contact that business after the fact and could be assisted in finding the right contact information,
  • Before deciding to do a high-value transaction with a business, customers may want to find out the experience others have had with that business.

Now, just because a user may have these problems and a CA may be able to help solve them, it does not mean the SSL indicator is the right place to help answer these questions. It just means that there is a problem and skills intersection.

When, and how to solve this problem is another exercise altogether. Let’s explore EV for a second to give that some context.

Today if we assume the information in an EV certificate is correct (and not confusing see: this and this for context) we can say it provides the answer to “if I need to sue these people where do I tell my lawyer they are at?”.

The problem with that is that you may not have that information when you need it. I say this because you typically need to sue someone after you completed a transaction with them not before. After the fact, you have no assurance that this information in the certificate will be available at the site you did the transaction with.  The website may have gone away, they could have changed their certificate, or could some other change may have taken place that makes that information not readily available to you when you need it.

In any event, the point of this post is to say CAs should not be asking what they can put into certificates but what problems users have that CAs are well suited to solve. Unless they start there they will not be solving a real problem, they will just be bolting more things onto a certificate and asking why browsers and users don’t users see value in it.

Reality vs Fantasy – The DV vs EV argument

This morning I woke up to a blog post from Melih, the founder of Comodo titled “Problem vs Solution Value mapping”.

This is a follow-up to an ongoing discussion Melih and I have been having about the value of EV, and positive trust indicators. On my blog, the conversation started July 2017 if you’re interested.

Melih’s focuses his most recent post on the assessment of “value”, correctly attempting to define it as the basis of the rest of the post. He chooses to define it as  “the direct result of a resolution to a problem.” I think it is this definition is the first part of his argument I have an issue with. Namely, The Oxford Dictionary defines “value” as “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.”

When considering “value” with this definition, I believe an analysis of “value” would start by building a case on what is “deserved”. To do that, we have to also define a context in which that value is assessed. I think this is probably the hardest part, and probably where most of the disagreement on “value” of EV stems from.

If we say the context of this assessment is “the security and privacy guarantees that can be provided to the user by user agents to users” EV’s value is no better than that of DV. It is not a hard case to make either.

The security model of the browser is based on the concept of “origin” where that origin is essentially the “hostname” that the content was retrieved from. Any external website or resource embedded in the site (with rare exception) has the same permission as the original website as a result of this model. This is how web analytics work, advertising and many other products and services that make up the web.

Until user agents required all of these entities that make up a given site to use EV and to have the legal entity in all of the associated certificates match; EV is a false flag. It says “you are talking to this legal entity” when in-fact your talking to many legal entities and any one of them could equally harm you.

The reality is that if this change were to be made that you would almost never see EV badges though. This is because virtually every site is made up of content and services from across the web and this condition would almost never be met. This is why we do not see CAs making the argument that this rule should be enforced by UAs.

If we say the context of this assessment is “the average users practical ability to protect themselves from phishing” again EV does not fair well. There have been lots of user studies done on how users do not understand positive trust indicators, and in general, do even notice them in most cases.

Furthermore, even if we disregard these well-run studies (and the associated common sense) as Ian Carroll showed with his Stripe, Inc business in Kentucky the values displayed in these indicators can trivially be made, at a very low cost and with no traceability, be made to say whatever an attacker wants. This again frames EV as a false flag because it can so easily be used to lend credence to a phisher’s site by giving them the EV badge that says the same thing as their target site.

If this was not enough, again if we disregard these well-run studies and say that people need to take the responsibility for looking at the EV badge to get confidence they are dealing with a trustworthy entity we need to look no further than the work James Burton did when he got a certificate for his business “Identity Verified”.  In this case, if a user has been taught to look at the EV indicator for an abstract concept of “trustworthiness” we are back to the user being mislead.

All of this ignores another very real problem, that being most phishing sites are not bespoke sites, instead, they are sites that are hacked and re-purposed. A good example of this is this one from a few weeks ago. What we appear to have here is a company called Northern Computer Services, LLC hosting a website for a business with the domain name “stampsbyjudith.com” hosting a Bank of America phishing site.

Now EV proponents surely see this as an example of EV working but if you look at it critically you will see it is exactly the opposite. First, could a customer believe that this “Northern Computer Services” is somehow a service provider to Bank of America? It seems reasonable to assume that the average user does not know anything about the way Bank Of America operates its services. In-fact even if you do have some level of understanding it’s incredibly common for banks to use service providers for different capabilities, maybe this Northern Computer Services hosts the BoFa website or provide billpay or mortgage services. How is the average user to know?

But what about the URL? There is no plausible way Bank Of America is hosting their site on the domain stampsbyjudith.com! Your absolutely right! it’s a fair expectation of us that if a user happens to look at the address bar that they should be able to figure that out. This is of course something you get when you use DV though, no EV necessary. Then there is the issue that studies also show that users do not look at the address bar either.

This is why Microsoft has created SmartScreen and Google has created Safe Browsing. These solutions utilize the massive scale and technology depth of these organizations along with machine learning and other advanced techniques to find phishing sites. As a result when a user navigates to a site similar to this one they get a interstitial warning them about proceeding.

In summary, in this context, I would argue that as EV exists today it actually makes things harder on the user and easier on the attacker.

With that context in mind let’s explore each of the arguments that Melih makes.

Users want protection from Transit Providers. Sure they do but I would say the if a user framed the topic this way it would demonstrate the how little they actually understand of the problem in question. It is not just “transit providers” they need protection from, it is every entity other than those that are necessary to serve the application hosted at a domain.

Networking is so complex it is not possible to expect even some of the most technical users to understand all of the nuances involved here.

I would like to point out that Melih again attempts to redefine terms, this time in a disingenuous way. Specifically, in this part of his post suggest there is some common understanding that there is a difference between “encipherment” and “encryption”.

Let’s again take a look at what the Oxford Dictionary says:

Encryption – The process of converting information or data into a code, especially to prevent unauthorized access.

Encipherment – Convert (a message or piece of text) into a coded form.

As you can see, these words mean the same thing. The only difference being the example use case in one of the definitions. But maybe this inconsistency is use  is because the Oxford Dictionary does not address a cryptographers view on these words? Unfortunately, that is not the case either, if you were to look at books like Serious Cryptography, Cryptography and Network Security, or even the very dated Applied Cryptography you will find no usage of these terms in this way.

What Melih has suggested in the past, and continues to do so in this section is that somehow if you authenticate only the domain and use that authentication as the basis for the session protection that this is not “encryption”.

Going so far to suggest that it is only encryption if you authenticate the legal entity. This is frankly ludicrous and I can not even respond to this more than I just have here.

I can say, that redefining a term, especially in such a specious way devalues any other valid points he may have.

But what about the users! The users want to know who they are dealing with! I actually agree with this but I also think it is far more complicated than users actually understand. So much so I would argue it is not possible to do in most cases. As a father when I run into situations where my kids want things that are not possible I sometimes joke with them and say “Well I want a pony!”.

It feels to me this is probably a case where that response is appropriate. The reality is there is not a globally unique business name, this is also the case with logos. Probably the best mainstream examples of this are the fake Starbucks stores and the notorial “Apple Stores” of Asia.

Fake Apple Store Highlights Counterfeit China

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This is the nature of brand names, in-fact there is an entire discipline of law (Trademark Law) dedicated to this topic and multilateral international agreements on how such disputes are to be handled.

So in the context of the url, does EV as it stands today add or remove value? From my perspective, it seems to me at a minimum in this context it provides no value but I could also make a reasonable argument it makes things worse here as well due to the introduction of more surface area for confusion.

User’s want to know if its “safe” to interact with the website! Again I can agree with this, the problem is names do not harm — we even teach our kids rhymes to remind them of this fact:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me.

To keep users safe we have to look at far more than the name a website is hosted under; there are literally thousands of features that a solution intending to protect users safety need to consider and I would not be surprised to find out that the name is one of the least important.

This is, again, why we have solutions like SmartScreen and Safe Browsing these solutions are constantly watching feeds of data to determine if a website is safe or not. It is not possible to solve the “safety” problem in any meaningful way without similar techniques.

But user’s want to be able to trust the content they see! Again, I also think this is something that users want, I just don’t think they can have everything they want.

But before I talk about this I want to talk about how Melih is redefining a term again, he suggests that “trust” means “having the ability to validate VISA, Paypal logo etc”. The oxford dictionary defines trust as “Firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.”

With that, I would think that it would be more correct to say that they want to believe what they see. This is of course a very natural thing, something scammers have taken advantage of since the dawn of time.

When considering this desire I think we have to ask ourselves what the best way we have to service the desire. We also have to acknowledge that malicious content is everywhere in the world (don’t forget our Fake Starbucks and Apple Stores from above) that the best we can do is provide a speedbump.

This is, again, why we have solutions like SmartScreen and Safe Browsing as they were designed, engineered and continually evolve to address these risks.

In closing, I believe EV as it stands today is a round peg in a square hole. This does not mean there is not value in knowing the legal identity of the organization who operates a website, it is also not because these third-parties can’t do more to help users manage the risks they are exposed to.

It is because EV is being sold as something it is not, a anti-phishing tool. Simply put it is not well suited to help with that problem and I would go so far that when we teach users to see it as such it even helps phishers.

Risk variance and managing risk

One of my favorite security sayings is “My threat model is not your threat model”. We broadly accept there are different perspectives for every problem — the same is true with security.

Consider an Enterprises IT organization where you are chartered to support and secure a business. You need to meet this charter with a fairly fixed set of resources but the business requirements you must support are always changing. To deliver a reasonable level of service enterprises standardize on a core set of ways that certain issues (user and access management, compute, etc.) will be provided and force business units down the path of adopting them.  But that standardization often results in non-ideal user experiences, disjointed business workflows, slow innovation and importantly, in this case, it also commonly results in the either over or under mitigating security risks.

Startups, who are on the other end of the spectrum, are in a race to demonstrate market traction before their funding runs out. As a result, startups either virtually ignore security and privacy altogether or re-using a component they do not understand that is not well suited to the business problem they are solving or simply solves the wrong problems for their business risks.

Both enterprises and startups show the hard reality that we are often so close to our problems and set in our way of thinking we simply miss the big picture. This natural bias can hurt our businesses and in the context of security trade-offs, and result in incidents like the recent Equifax breach or the ever-growing list of Bitcoin exchange compromises.

The first step in preventing this “missizing” of risk is to make sure you understand what your risks actually are. The right way to do that is to think adversarially, taking a step outside of your business process or solution and thinking about the structure of the system your protecting and defining a threat model that captures those risks. This is not a one time exercise, it is something you need to constantly be re-visiting and getting new perspectives into.

Consider the typical Bitcoin exchange compromise, the exchanges usually start with a basic system limited to “online hot wallets” with weak architectural protections. They probably know better (for humanity’s sake I hope they do) but decided that the risk, in the beginning, is low enough because they have so little to lose that they go forward. Later they find success and are focused on other parts of their business and never get back to fixing that early trade-off.

As an aside, this bitcoin example showcases lots of problems, the largest being the asymmetric risk distribution. Specifically, the risk here is that of the depositor but the decision to take the risk is made by the exchange. I digress but this class of problem is a real problem in most startups and is the impact of which is multiplied 1000x in Bitcoin startups.

In any event, we can see how these sorts of things happen in hindsight so how can we limit how often these issues happen in the first place? As a technologist it hurts me to say this, the answer is process.

The good news is that process does not need to be heavy-weight. You need to make sure you approach the problem systematically and regularly, for example:

  • Instead of a threat model, you can do a simple threat tree,
  • You can use your bug tracking system to track the security issues you have found,
    • You can make sure those bugs capture the security decisions you have made,
    • The consequences of the identified risks for the actors in the system are captured,
    • What mitigations you have put in place for those issues along with how effective you think they will be are captured,
  • And importantly have a plan for how you will respond when things go wrong because they will regardless of how well you plan and invest in making the right security decisions.

You can then make sure you are reviewing these and acting accordingly on a regular schedule. This will ensure your organization at least has an inventory of issues that can last the individuals on a team and will make sure there is a point of conscious risk acceptance that the organization has taken.

This does not replace a full-on security program but it can at least make sure you are looking at the problem in the context of your business, your users and not just assuming every system has the same security needs.

On a related note for you startups, especially those who are operating in murky waters regarding regulation. The current regulations belong in your threat tree so you can make sure you understand them and begin to understand how they might apply to you even if you have to squint a bit to do it.

The Evolution of Security Thinking

In design sometimes we refer to the strategies used during the design process as Design thinking.  The application of these strategies helps ensure you are solving the right problems and doing so in a repeatable way. You can attribute much of the massive improvements in usability in software and devices over the two decades to these strategies.

If we look at how we have evolved thinking around building secure systems over the last two decades we can see that we have evolved similar strategies to help ensure positive security outcomes.

If we go back to the late 80s we see systems that were largely designed for a world of honest actors. There was little real business happening on the Internet at the time and the hard problems to be solved were all related to how do we enable a global network of interconnected systems so thats where efforts were put. These efforts led us to the Internet of today but it also gave us systems vulnerable to trivial attacks such as the Morris Worm.

By the 90s the modern “security industry” was born and products designed to protect these insecure systems from the internet started to come to market. One of the most impactful examples of this was the TIS Firewall Toolkit, other examples of this way of thinking include Antivirus products and other agents that promised to keep our applications and operating systems safe from “attackers”.

By the late 90s and early 2000s, it was clear that these agents were never going to be effective at keeping the bad guys out and that we needed to be building systems that were Secure by Default, Secure by Design and Private by Design. This shift in thinking meant that solution developers needed to develop their own strategies and tooling to ensure systems could be built to be inherently resilient to the risks they were exposed to. The concept of Threat Modeling is probably the most concrete example of this, believe it or not, this basic concept was essentially absent from software development up until this point.

By this time the technical debt in deployed systems was so great we spent most of a decade just trying to rectify the mistakes of the past. Windows XP SP2 and the Microsoft Security Stand Down is probably the most visible example of the industry making this shift, it also leads to the Security Development Lifecycle that largely informs how we as an industry, approach building secure systems today.

During this timeline, cryptography was treated as something that you sprinkled on top of existing systems with the hope to make them more confidential and secure. As an industry, we largely relied on the US Government to define the algorithms we used and to tell us how to use them securely. As a general rule only products designed for government use or for the small group of “cypherpunks” even considered the inclusion of cryptography due to the complexity of “getting it right”.

Things are changing again, we see the IETF via the CFRG working to standardize on international and independently created and cryptographic algorithms in lieu of relying exclusively on governments to do this standardization. We also see the concept of Formal Verification being applied to cryptographic systems (Galois is doing great work here with Cryptol as are other great projects in the verifiable computing space) which is leading us to have frameworks we can apply to build these concepts into other products securely (check out the Noise Protocol Framework as an example).

I think the Signal Protocol and Blockchain Technologies are examples of the next phase of evolution in our thinking about how we build secure systems. Not because of “decentralization” or some anti-government bent in technologists, instead, these systems were designed with a more-complete understanding of security risks associated with their use.

Trust is a necessary component of human existence. It can give us peace of mind but It can also give us broken hearts. The same is true in the context of system design. Trust cautiously.

These systems, by design, go to great length to limit the need for “trust” for a system to work as intended. They do this by minimizing the dependencies that a system takes in its design, this is because each of those dependencies represents an attack vector as we advance technology our attackers become more advanced as well. They also make extensive use of cryptography to make that possible.

This focus on dependency reduction is why we see Blockchain enthusiasts taking the maximalist position of “Decentralize all the Things”. In my opinion, centralization is not always a bad thing, over-centralization maybe, but centralization can provide value to users and that value is what we should be focused on as solution developers.

My personal take is that when we look back on the next decade we will the say the trend was not “blockchain” but instead this is when we evolved our security thinking and tooling to better utilize cryptography. Specifically that this is when we started to use cryptography to make transparency, confidentiality and verifiability part of the core of the solutions we build instead of thinking of it as a layer we apply once we are done.

Positive Trust Indicators and SSL

[Full disclosure I work at Google, I do not speak for the Chrome team, and more generically am not speaking for my employer in this or any of my posts here]

Recently Melih did a blog post on the topic of browser trust indicators. In this post he makes the argument that DV certificates should not receive any positive indicator in the browser user interface.

I agree with him, just not for the same reasons. Positive trust indicators largely do not work and usability studies prove that is true. Browsers introduced the “lock” user interface indicator as part of a set of incentives and initiatives intending to encourage site operators to adopt SSL.

What is important is that these efforts to encrypt the web are actually working, over half the web is now encrypted and more importantly the adoption rate is demonstrating hockey stick growth.

As a result, in 2014 Chrome started down the path of deprecating positive trust indicators all together. In-fact today Chrome already marks HTTP pages as “Not secure” if they have password or credit card fields.

The eventual goal being able to mark all HTTP pages as insecure but for this to happen SSL adoption needs to be much higher, I suspect browsers will want to see adoption in the 90% to 95% range before they are willing to make this change.

This is relevant in this case because if all pages are encrypted what value does a positive trust indicator have? None. This means that when all HTTP pages get marked “Not secure” we will probably see the lock icon disappear.

So, as I said, I agree with Mehli, the “Secure” indicator should go away but so should the lock, the question is not if, but when.

But what does that mean for EV trust indicators? I am a member of a small group, a group that thinks that EV certificates can provide value. With that said today EV certificates have some major shortcomings wich significantly limit their value, some of which include:

  • It is not possible to get an EV wildcard certificate,
  • CAs, largely, have ignored automation for EV certificates,
  • Due to the lack of automation EV certificates are long lived and their keys more susceptible to theft as a result,
  • The vetting processes used in the issuance of EV certificates are largely manual making them expensive and impractical to use in many cases,
  • CAs market them as an antiphishing tool when there are no credible studies that support that,
  • The business name in the certificate is based on the legal name of the entity, not the name they do business under (DBA),
  • The business address details in the certificate are based on where business is registered (e.g. Delaware),
  • There is no contact information in the certificate, short of the taxation address, that a user can use to reach someone in case of an issue.

Addressing these issues have either been actively been resisted by CAs, for example, DigiCert has tried to get EV wildcard certificates to be a thing in the CA/Browser Forum a number of times but CAs have voted against it every time, or simply ignored.

There are some people who are working towards addressing these gaps, for example, the folks over at CertSimple but without CAs taking a leading role in redefining the EV certificate the whole body of issues can nott be resolved. Importantly until that happens you won’t see browsers even considering updates to the EV UI.

Given this reality, browsers have slowly been minimizing the details shown in EV certificates since they can give users the wrong impression and have limited value given the contents of the certificate.

It is my belief that unless the CAs work together to address the above systematic issues in EV certificates that minimization will continue and when the web is “encrypted” it won’t just be DV that loses its positive trust indicator, it will be EV also.

 

Let’s talk about revocation checking, let’s talk about you and me.

I have been having a conversation with Melhi at Comodo, this is the most recent post in that series.

First of all, the author is unaware that my company has built the most sophisticated Certificate Management system that can automatically request, issue, renew and manage the whole lifecycle of the certificate. Many Fortune 500 companies rely on this amazing technology to manage their PKI infrastructure.

I am aware.

So it is with that expertise and insight I must insist that the author does not appreciate the nuance between “high frequency” renewal vs “low frequency” renewals. Short lived certs will require “high frequency” renewal system. To an IT admin this is a scary prospect! They tell us that!

Having been responsible for and or worked heavly on:

  • The Valicert OCSP responder and clients,
  • The Windows CA and the enrollment client at Microsoft, which is the most used CA software ever,
  • The Network Access Protection solution that used IPSEC and ~12-hour certificates to do segmentation of hosts at the IP layer and their health. based network isolation solution that was deployed into many of the Fortune 500,
  • All of GlobalSign’s technology offerings, in particular, the technology enabling their expansion into the Enterprise,
  • Helping the ISRG build out Let’s Encrypt,
  • Designing, building and operating numerous other high volume products and services in finance, healthcare, and government.

Above and beyond that I helped secure Bing Ads and Live ID and now work at Google on other very high scale systems.

Needless to say, I too have familiarity with “high frequency”,  “low frequency”, “disaster recovery” and “availability” problems.

As for fear, it is a natural part of life, I believe it was Nelson Mandela who famously said: Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.

The reality is that it is manual certificate lifecycle management that is the thing to be afraid of. That is why COMODO and other CAs have been building out cloud-based management and automation solutions over the last few years. For customers this reduces failure, reduces costs, gives more control, and nets higher customer satisfaction.

Importantly, one needs to remember it is manual processes that lead to the majority of outages [see 1,2,3, and 4]. The scale of this problem has even led to an entire market segment dedicated to managing the lifecycle of WebPKI certificates.

So to the question of fear, I would say the same thing my father told me, though change can be scary and uncomfortable in the short term, it usually turns out okay in the end, and often better.

I believe there can be a scalable revocation infrastructure that can serve status for all certs from all CAs that is backward compatible with existing issued certificates that can be called from a browser. As I said before I do believe in the ingenuity of our scientist and engineers to bring us this solution……soon….

You misunderstand me. I did not say it was impossible to have a scalable revocation infrastructure that is backward compatible. I said the creation of a new system that could deliver on the small message size promise we were discussing would take 10 years to design, build and deploy.

To understand my rational take a look at this post. It is a little old now, and update rates are a faster now but not massively. When you review it you will see that if you exclude IE/Edge it takes just under a year for a new version of the most common browsers to reach 90% market share.

To put that in a more concrete way, if today, Chrome, Firefox, and Safari decided to simultaneously release a new version with a new revocation scheme it would take a bit less than a year for us to see 90% deployment. That is, of course, an unrealistic goal. Apple, for example only releases new versions a few times a year and does not even support WebRTC yet. Additionally, browsers have a pretty deep-seated position on revocation checking at this point given all the problems of the past so convince them will take time.

A more realistic, but still optimistic period assuming pre-existing consensus and a will to solve the problem is 5 to 6 years. If you question this figure, just look at how long it took for TLS 1.2 to get deployed. TLS 1.2 was published in 2008 and was not enabled by default in Windows until Windows 8.1 in 2014.

Web servers are even worse, as an example consider Apache version 2 was released in 2002 and these later versions still have less than 50% deployment.

Lets call it DCSP 😉

DCSP isn’t a bad idea, but it has its own challenges. For example, some that come at the top of mind are:

  • Most browsers do not ship their own DNS clients, this is one of the problems DNSSEC had in deployment. If the operating system DNS APIs they use do not provide the information they need then they can not adopt any technology depend on it.
  • Middleboxes and captive networks make DNS-based distribution problematic. Again DNSSEC suffered from this.
  • If DCSP requires a custom record type, for example, DNS servers and tooling will need to be updated. DNS servers also do not get updated regularly, this is another thing that has held back DNSSEC as well as CAA. It is fair to say that it is fair for the WebPKI CAs to update their DNS but based on the glacial pace in which CAs adopt technology that is 3-4 years before you could see deployment even with that (see CT as an example).

To be clear, I think something like this is worth exploring but I don’t think it will see meaningful deployment in the near term.

If we were in Vegas, I would say the most expedient path is to build on what is there, while in parallel building the new thing. This can shave as much as 5 years off the time it takes to solve the problem. If nothing else this moves the CA ecosystem closer to an operational maturity capable of supporting the new system.

Ryan