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Distributed Trust for Web Servers

[Distributed Trust for Web Servers]

The M-Pin protocol, and its implementation in the Milagro project currently incubating at Apache, provides cryptographic security using a distributed trust model. In place of the single point of failure (and high-value target for social engineering attacks) of today's Certificate Authorities (CAs), cryptographic verification is assembled from two or more mutually independent authorities, all of which would need to be subverted at once to break security. This project helps bring distributed trust to the Web, by implementing M-Pin support via Milagro's libraries in leading Open Source web servers. This will pave the way both to a distributed trust alternative to monolithic CAs and browser trust lists, and to a distributed trust alternative to protocols such as OpenID for user identification.

Why does this actually matter to end users?

One of the oldest questions on the internet is: how do you adequately prove you are you? Or perhaps the reverse formulation offers a better mental model: how do you prevent others from succeeding in pretending they are you? Now lets flip this question around once more: how would you like to see this managed yourself, if you could? How heavy-weight or convenient do you want to be proven that you are you, to allow you to get into your own environment or have something done on your behalf? And what is it worth to you in terms of effort? Would you be willing to spend a minute to have some clever secure device you have in your pocket involved? Authenticate via your mobile phone? And what if you are in a rush, or on the go? Are you happy with some company like your email provider or a large social network having the ability to make that judgement, based on a user login a few hours ago? And what if that company is based in some other jurisdiction, and could be forced to let others in as well? Or would you rather choose your own identity, and formulate direct rules to have complete control at any given point?

As could be guessed, individual people have a need for different levels of confidence and security in different contexts. A security breach matters perhaps less if you just want to login to a music service to change a playlist. After all, the worst that can happen is that someone messes things up and you have to create a new one. It matters a great deal more if you want to do a significant financial transaction at work, or open the door of your house remotely to let the babysitter in while you are delayed in traffic. Perhaps you can think of scenarios where you want even more control.

So what proof to use as the basis of your trust, and the subsequent actions taken? Historically people rely on some authority they collectively trust. Such an authority has typically taken high tech countermeasures to make the channel through which that trust is conveyed hard to fraud. A passport or banknote are quite tricky to fabricate due to the use of special techniques. Online we have only a very limited amount of trust "anchors" of varying quality. The domain name system is such an anchor, digital certificates or customer relationships are another. Any central authority of course introduces a potential single point of failure. If a certificate authority or the digital proofs they provide for your online identity and were to be compromised, you can imagine the worldwide damage that can be done and data that could be stolen.

Instead of relying on single points of failure, this project wants to distribute this trust across two or more independent certificate authorities so no single attack can be successful. This can help provide more resilient security to the entire internet infrastructure and ward off the increasing threat of cyber criminality.

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This project was funded through the NGI0 PET Fund, a fund established by NLnet with financial support from the European Commission's Next Generation Internet programme, under the aegis of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology under grant agreement No 825310.

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Please check out NLnet's theme funds, such as NGI Assure, NGI0 Discovery (which is focussed on search, discovery and discoverability) and the Internet Hardening Fund.

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