Questions of trust should always be taken very seriously, especially in the cyber world. That’s why we hold certificate authorities (CAs) to a very high standard. That’s why when the DarkMatter Group recently requested inclusion as a root CA in Mozilla’s trust store, it triggered a lively debate on who we can, should or choose to trust.
As a cyber security company located in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), DarkMatter CA has upheld a stellar record for the past few years while operating as a sub-CA under QuoVadis. So, on paper, there are no major objections that could be raised in terms of DarkMatter meeting CA/Brower Forum requirements.
In a recent conversation I had with Kevin Bocek, vice president of security and threat intelligence for Venafi, he observed, “They're operating according to spec. They've got great staff. They've got European software. They've got the best. If you don't allow them root status, then it undermines the role of the CA/Browser Forum in setting the rules that we all follow.”
On the other hand, a recent article published by Reuters raised questions about the role of surveillance activities conducted by Project Raven, a project affiliated with DarkMatter. According to the article, “The story of Project Raven reveals how former U.S. government hackers have employed state-of-the-art cyber-espionage tools on behalf of a foreign intelligence service that spies on human rights activists, journalists and political rivals.”
Of course, DarkMatter refutes these claims, while attempting to position these issues as irrelevant to the approval of their potential CA root status with Mozilla. But should their affiliation with the UAE government be held against them? After all, there many other examples of government entities in the trust stores of Google, Apple and Microsoft.
“There may be legitimate then concerns, so don't get me wrong,” countered Kevin Bocek. “But this where it gets a bit hypocritical. The job of the CA/Browser Forum is not to be God. It's not to be a moralist or a theologian. It’s not even to be the judge of the intent of someone who makes a certificate request.”
So, who’s going to make the call? As Kevin Bocek likes to tell CISOs, “It's a bit like Medieval times where the only people that are going to protect your kingdom from attackers is you. There's no army that's going to show up. It's just you.”
That means it’s up to security leaders to take charge of understanding and determining which entities they will trust. “You shouldn't be trusting those that have nothing to do with your business operations.” Kevin Bocek warns. “If you don't take an active role in whitelisting and blacklisting the CAs in your trust stores—everywhere from the desktop to application servers to the cloud—you may end up incidentally trusting hundreds of CAs that you have no relationship with to enable others, including hackers, to be trusted. What you're essentially doing is letting somebody who knows nothing about your business determine who you will trust.”
Kevin Bocek uses the following example to illustrate the severity of these risks. “You would never go to your board and say, ‘I trust a Romanian entity to enable anyone in the world to be trusted by our business, especially when your business has no business in Romania.’ Isn't that crazy? And it's the only part of cybersecurity where this is the case. Not establishing a whitelist and blacklist for CAs in tens of thousands of trust stores in the average business is risky to say the least.”
What make this challenge even more severe is that the machine identities that are at risk are a prime target for cyber criminals. A recent report shows that on the dark web, machines identities are economically more valuable than human identities. But many CISOs haven't been trained to consider this or trained how to react to threats against machine identities. They simply don’t realize how big the threat is or what they can do to mitigate it.
As they ponder the implications of the DarkMatter debate, security executives everywhere need to begin to think about what establishes control, particularly when it comes to mitigating risk in trust stores. Kevin Bocek concluded our conversation with this quip, “Who rules the world? It's whoever controls the machine identities and you better darn well have control over yours.”