Better SSL error screens

Right now, when you visit a website that uses encryption in Firefox and there’s anything at all wrong with the encrypted connection, you get a big block of jargon which doesn’t do anything to tell the user how big the risk actually is, or help them distinguish a minor problem from a major one.

If you click on technical details you get a little bit more information about what went wrong, but it still doesn’t make any effort to give advice.

The Firefox UI team has been talking about using Herdict or a similar service to improve network error screens, especially the site not found screen. I think we could get a lot of mileage out of that for SSL errors as well. We should also make use of the user’s history with the site, and pay attention to what exactly is wrong with the credential. Here are some examples.

The only problem with self-signed certificates is they haven’t been signed by a trusted third party. The connection is secure, but you might not be talking to who you think you are. In the first section, we emphasize that the concern here is with identity, and we use Herdict information to deduce that this is probably not a hijacked site, because lots of people get the same credential. (The same credential means exactly the same, not just some self-signed cert, but we needn’t bother people with that unless they want to see the details.)

In the What should I do? section, we give some examples of things that might be unsafe to trust this site with, but we go ahead and let them visit the site, automatically storing the self-signed cert and marking it valid for this site only. We implement bug 251407, so we can promise to notify the user if the site’s credentials change in the future.

I’ve front-loaded the information that used to be in the technical details section, so it has been replaced with Inspect the Credentials. If you open that area up, it shows the certificate, but in a more user-friendly way than the existing certificate dialog box does. Especially important here is to reveal the interesting parts immediately, highlight suspicious things, and deemphasize the jargon and the long hexadecimal numbers.

I understand the risks is still there, but in this case, it’s for people who didn’t read the rest of the page. It’s meant to make people stop, slow down, and reread. If you click on it you get another link to the page.

There are exploits in the wild that take over your WiFi hub, or your cable modem. Once they’ve done that, they are in a position to tamper with all your Internet traffic. I ran into one of these for reals last week; I was in a café and getting certificate errors on every secure site I tried to visit, including Mozilla’s mail server. (The theory is that you’ll just click through the error messages because you want to get your email, or whatever; one of the staff at the café did just that when I complained.) Here’s where Herdict could really come in handy: if you are getting certificate errors but nobody else is, we can deduce a problem near your computer.

Again, the first section tries to be clear and specific about the problem: we suspect that someone is tampering with your Internet connection, and here is why. The second section underlines how big a deal this is: Do not log into any site or buy anything online. It then suggests a test: visit another secure website and see if the problem persists. This scenario should put the whole browser into a paranoid mode, where it will not load saved passwords and continues to try to work out whether there’s something wrong with the local router. Ultimately, we should advise people in this boat to factory-reset their WiFi hub and/or contact their ISP for help, but we should take care to be certain in our diagnosis first.

In this scenario, the I understand the risks section gives you access to the certificate-exception dialogs, as it does now.

Finally, here’s what it looks like in the comparatively rare scenario that SSL certificates were originally intended to defend against: the server has been hijacked (but the attackers do not have access to the cert). We can tell from browser history that the cert has changed, and we can tell from Herdict that it has changed for everyone. We tell the user not to visit this website, and again, suggest trying another secure site. (We need to take care to distinguish this case from an expired or legitimately changed cert.)

Responses to “Better SSL error screens”

  1. Tiago Sá

    Wow! This looks like a big improvement! Great stuff! Is it possible that this makes it into the 3.7 release?

  2. Tiago Sá

    Also (and sorry for the double post), the secure site check could be made easier by providing a link to a secure site inside mozilla, some kind of support site for these matters. It should be easy to set up, and would stop the user from relying on their knowledge about which sites are secure, or what a secure site is at all.