Any time people make a secure Web connection (the "s" in HTTPS), the browser establishes that connection by way of an SSL certificate. Alternately, if one is connecting to one's corporate office via VPN, one is most likely protecting that connection with TLS (Transport Layer Security).
As Venafi, a global 5000 security company, notes, "TLS/SSL certificates provide machines — everything from applications, websites, devices and even algorithms — with a digital identity. In the wrong hands, they can be powerful weapons, giving hackers the appearance of legitimacy, allowing them to set up convincing spoofing websites for phishing attacks, or to bypass security controls to carry out man-in-the-middle attacks, putting them in high demand by hackers. "
Resent research sponsored by Venafi and undertaken by researchers at the Evidence-based Cybersecurity Research Group at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University and the University of Surrey, found that:
- TLS/SSL certificates are being sold with cyber crime "bundles": TLS/SSL certificates are being sold as part of hacker "toolkits", alongside malicious websites and ransomware. Some markets even specialised in the sale of TLS/SSL machine identities "as-a-service", bundled in with aged Web domains, after-sale support, website design, and even integration with popular payment processors like Stripe, PayPal and Square. In fact, five of the Tor network markets observed offer a steady supply of SSL/TLS certificates, along with a range of related services and products.
- Legitimate certificate authorities are being tricked into issuing questionable certificates: Vendors are issuing certificates from reputable certificate authorities, such as GoDaddy and Digicert, allowing hackers to present themselves as trusted US or UK companies for less than US$2000.
- Prices for certificates vary from US$260 to US$1600, depending on the type of certificate and additional services sought.
- Researchers found extended validation certificates packaged with services to support malicious websites such as Google-indexed "aged" domains, after-sale support, Web design services, and integration with a range of payment processors – including Stripe, PayPal and Square.
An "aged domain" is one that has been established for some considerable time and has been deeply embedded in Google's search databases.
The authors conclude: "This project provides evidence of the existence of an online underground market for TLS certificates, specifically the presence of vendors on online underground markets that are promising to issue EV certificates for US and UK companies for less than US$2000. At this point, we are not sure how large this market is, whether the quality of goods offered matches vendor listings, or which parties are interested in purchasing these commodities. However, we plan to continue our research and keep investigating this issue."