More on SSL errors

I got some great responses to my ideas for SSL errors and I thought I’d make a new post to talk about them, since that post is old enough that you can’t comment on it anymore. I should probably emphasize up front that I’m not on Firefox’s UX team, I don’t know if they’re listening to my suggestions, and anyway they were meant as a starting point rather than completely finished designs.

David Bolton wanted to know why some of the error screens asked the user to visit other sites manually, rather than doing checks behind the scenes. The main reason, honestly, is that that made a good example thing the user could do next. In practice we probably would want to do at least some checks in the background. Right now, another reason would be that error pages do not have chrome privileges so they can’t do anything of the sort (this is part of why the certificate error screen pops up a separate dialog box if you say you want to add an exception) but we may be able to get around that in a real implementation.

John Barton, in email, points out that SSL errors often come up in practice because of server-side configuration changes that ought to have been transparent to users, but a sysadmin goofed. I’ve been using the Certificate Patrol extension, which brings up warnings when a site’s cert changes in any way; this reveals that cert handling mistakes happen even on very popular and well-staffed sites (recently, for instance, flipped back and forth between its own cert and the generic * cert several times in one day). Of course that would have been invisible to most people, but it’s not much harder to make mistakes that do trigger warnings in a stock browser.

My general feeling on that is, yes, it is way too hard to administer an SSL-encrypted web site, and I would wholeheartedly support an initiative to make it easier, especially for sites that carry information of only moderate sensitivity (e.g. the plethora of Bugzilla instances with self-signed certs out there in the wild). I don’t think that should stop us from raising the visibility of SSL administration mistakes, as long as we improve the presentation and advice on those mistakes so we are not just training people to click through the errors.

John also points out that most people won’t have any idea what Herdict is or why they are trustworthy. The explicit mention of Herdict was mainly because I was riffing off Boriss’ earlier proposal to use Herdict information to improve page not found errors. Indeed, we should probably put it more like Other people who try to visit this website get (something) which (is/isn’t) what you got. We should credit whatever service we use for that information, but it doesn’t have to be as prominent as I made it.

Someone else (whose name I have lost; sorry, whoever you were!) pointed me at the Perspectives extension, which is said to do more or less exactly what I proposed, as far as comparing certificates seen by the user with those seen by notaries at other network locations. I like the use of the term notary and the proof of concept; unfortunately, Perspectives seems not to be actively maintained at the moment, and doesn’t work with Firefox 3.6. Also, for privacy, we want to make the queries to the notaries as uninformative as possible to an adversary that can observe network traffic. Reusing the same system that is used for is this site down? requests would help there. (Ideally, the notaries would also be unable to tell which users are asking what about which sites, but that might not be tractable.)