Enhancing trust and security on the internet – browsers are the first line of defence

Enhancing trust and security online is one of the defining challenges of our time – in the EU alone, 37% of residents do not believe they can sufficiently protect themselves from cybercrime. Individuals need assurance that their credit card numbers, social media logins, and other sensitive data are protected from cybercriminals when browsing. With that in mind, we’ve just unveiled an update to the security policies that protect people from cybercrime, demonstrating again the critical role Firefox plays in ensuring trust and security online.

Browsers like Firefox use encryption to protect individuals’ data from eavesdroppers when they navigate online (e.g. when sending credit card details to an online marketplace). But protecting data from cybercriminals when it’s on the move is only part of the risk we mitigate. Individuals also need assurance that they are sending data to the correct domain (e.g., “amazon.com”). If someone sends their private data to a cybercriminal instead of to their bank, for example, it is of little consolation that the data was encrypted while getting there.

To address this we rely on cryptographic website certificates, which allow a website to prove that it controls the domain name that the individual has navigated to. Websites obtain these certificates from certificate authorities, organisations that run checks to verify that websites are not compromised. Certificate authorities are a critical pillar of trust in this ecosystem – if they mis-issue certificates to cybercriminals or other malicious actors, the consequences for individuals can be catastrophic.

To keep Firefox users safe, we ensure that only certificate authorities that maintain high standards of security and transparency are trusted in the browser (i.e., included in our ‘root certificate store’). We also continuously monitor and review the behaviour of certificate authorities that we opt to trust to ensure that we can take prompt action to protect individuals in cases where a trusted certificate authority has been compromised.

Properly maintaining a root certificate store is a significant undertaking, not least because the cybersecurity threat landscape is constantly evolving. We aim to ensure our security standards are always one step ahead, and as part of that effort, we’ve just finalised an important policy update that will increase transparency and security in the certificate authority ecosystem. This update introduces new standards for how audits of certificate authorities should be conducted and by whom; phases out legacy encryption standards that some certificate authorities still deploy today; and requires more transparency from certificate authorities when they revoke certificates. We’ve already begun working with certificate authorities to ensure they can properly transition to the new higher security standards.

The policy update is the product of a several-month process of open dialogue and debate amongst various stakeholders in the website security space. It is a further case-in-point of our belief in the value of transparent, community-based processes across the board for levelling-up the website security ecosystem. For instance, before accepting a certificate authority in Firefox we process lots of data and perform significant due diligence, then publish our findings and hold a public discussion with the community. We also maintain a public security incident reporting process to encourage disclosure and learning from experts in the field.

Ultimately, this update process highlights once again how operating an independent root certificate store allows us to drive the website security ecosystem towards ever-higher standards, and to serve as the first line of defence for when web certificates are misused. It’s a responsibility we take seriously and we see it as critical to enhancing trust on the internet.

It’s also why we’re so concerned about draft laws under consideration in the EU (Article 45 of the ‘eIDAS regulation’) that would forbid us from applying our security standards to certain certificate authorities and block us from taking action if and when those certificate authorities mis-issue certificates. If adopted in its current form by the EU, Article 45 would be a major step back for security on the internet, because of how it would restrict browser security efforts and because of the global precedent it would set. A broad movement of digital rights organisations; consumer groups; and numerous independent cybersecurity experts (here, here, and here) has begun to raise the alarm and to encourage the EU to change course on Article 45. We are working hard to do so too.

We’re proud of our root certificate store and the role it plays in enhancing trust and security online. It’s part of our contribution to the internet – we’ll continue to invest in it with security updates like this one and work with lawmakers on ensuring legal frameworks continue to support this critical work.


Thumbnail photo credit:

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Attribution: Santeri Viinamäki