Visible to the public Analysis of SSL Certificate Reissues and Revocations in the Wake of Heartbleed

TitleAnalysis of SSL Certificate Reissues and Revocations in the Wake of Heartbleed
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsLiang Zhang, Dave Choffnes, Tudor Dumitras, Dave Levin, Alan Mislove, Aaron Schulman, Christo Wilson
Date Published2014-11-05
Conference LocationVancouver, Canada
ISBN Number978-1-4503-3213-2
KeywordsHuman Behavior, Human Behavior and Cyber Vulnerabilities, Jan'15, Metrics, UMD

Central to the secure operation of a public key infrastructure (PKI) is the ability to revoke certificates. While much of users' security rests on this process taking place quickly, in practice, revocation typically requires a human to decide to reissue a new certificate and revoke the old one. Thus, having a proper understanding of how often systems administrators reissue and revoke certificates is crucial to understanding the integrity of a PKI. Unfortunately, this is typically difficult to measure: while it is relatively easy to determine when a certificate is revoked, it is difficult to determine whether and when an administrator should have revoked.

In this paper, we use a recent widespread security vulnerability as a natural experiment. Publicly announced in April 2014, the Heartbleed OpenSSL bug, potentially (and undetectably) revealed servers' private keys. Administrators of servers that were susceptible to Heartbleed should have revoked their certificates and reissued new ones, ideally as soon as the vulnerability was publicly announced.

Using a set of all certificates advertised by the Alexa Top 1 Million domains over a period of six months, we explore the patterns of reissuing and revoking certificates in the wake of Heartbleed. We find that over 73% of vulnerable certificates had yet to be reissued and over 87% had yet to be revoked three weeks after Heartbleed was disclosed. Moreover, our results show a drastic decline in revocations on the weekends, even immediately following the Heartbleed announcement. These results are an important step in understanding the manual processes on which users rely for secure, authenticated communication.

Citation Key IMC-2014