Why We Trust WebPKI Root Certificate Authorities

I’ve always likened the WebPKI governance system to our legal system, where congress sets the laws and the judiciary ensures compliance. Justice Breyer’s recent explanation on “rules” and “standards” in law, as discussed on the Advisory Opinions podcast, resonates well with how WebPKI operates in practice. In WebPKI, “rules” are explicitly defined through audits derived from CA/Browser Forum standards, incorporated into programs like WebTrust for CAs, and enforced through contractual obligations. These rules ensure aspire to consistent security and reliability across the web.

In contrast, “standards” in WebPKI encompass community norms, best practices, and recommendations specific to each root program. These standards are adaptable, evolving with technological advancements, security threats, and collective learning among CAs. They provide a framework that upholds the integrity of the Internet, ensuring that CAs remain transparent and live up to their promises while adhering to ecosystem norms, requirements, and best practices.

Similar to the Supreme Court, the WebPKI governance system consists of multiple ‘justices,’ with each root program acting akin to a Supreme Court justice. Their decisions on adherence or abstention from standards shape the outcomes that dictate the security and reliability of the Internet. Thus, the trust users place in WebPKI and its stewards is earned through a consistent, transparent, and accountable framework that ensures integrity across devices and browsers.

The Dual Role of Root Programs

1. As Trusted Stewards

While there’s no explicit voting process for root program management, users effectively select them through their choice of browsers or operating systems that incorporate these programs. This implicit trust in their ability to deliver on their security promises to users grants root programs the authority to establish and enforce rigorous standards for Root CAs. These standards determine inclusion in trust stores based on compliance assessments and judgments on value a CA would bring the web’s users, ensuring Root CAs uphold a consistent and transparent standard of integrity that users and web operators can rely on.

2. As Judicial Authorities

Root programs also serve a critical judicial function within the WebPKI landscape, akin to a Supreme Court. They interpret rules and standards, resolve ambiguities, settle community disputes, and establish precedents that guide CA operational practices. This role ensures equitable and consistent application of standards across all Root CAs.

Enforcing Compliance and Transparency

1. Maintaining Checks and Balances

Root programs enforce checks and balances through rigorous audits and monitoring, similar to judicial reviews. These processes assess Root CAs’ adherence to these
“rules” and “standards” and ensure accountability,with the goal of  preventing misuse of their authority on the web.

2. Promoting Transparency and Accountability

Root programs need to operate with a high degree of transparency, akin to open judicial proceedings. Decisions on trust or distrust of Root CAs need to be communicated clearly, accompanied by reasons for these decisions. This transparency ensures that all stakeholders, from end-users to website operators, understand and trust the framework protecting their privacy.

Case Study: The Ongoing Entrust Incident

A current discussion in the mozilla.dev.security.policy forum provides a compelling example of how the WebPKI governance framework operates in practice. This incident underscores the nuanced interaction between rules and standards, as well as the critical importance of transparency and accountability in maintaining trust.

The issue at hand involves Entrust’s performance concerns related to certificate misissuance. Such incidents are pivotal in demonstrating how root programs must navigate complex challenges and uphold rigorous standards of integrity within the web. The ongoing dialogue in the forum highlights the deliberative process undertaken by root programs to address such issues, ensuring that decisions are transparently communicated to stakeholders.

Cases like this illustrate the intricate balance that root programs must maintain between enforcing strict rules for security and adapting standards to accommodate technological advancements. The resolution of these incidents ultimately defines why users can trust root CAs, as it showcases the procedural approach, the transparency the process was designed for, and the goal of achieving accountability through this governance framework.

Why This All Matters

Understanding the dual role of root programs as regulatory bodies and judicial authorities underscores their essential role in maintaining trust. It emphasizes the significance of their decisions in shaping how privacy is delivered on the web, focusing on delivering a robust, evolving transparent, and accountable governance framework to guide these decisions.

The trust placed in WebPKI and its stewards are earned through a system that respects user choice and adheres to principles of fairness, ensuring that end-users can trust they are communicating with the correct website.

One thought on “Why We Trust WebPKI Root Certificate Authorities

  1. Pingback: Content is King in Phishing and the Role of Publicly Trusted CAs | UNMITIGATED RISK

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