Web distribution signing

Bringing trust back between software authors and user agents.

I’m not a crypto expert, nor pretend to be one. These are thoughts I want to share with the crypto community to actually see if any solution exists to solve this particular problem.

One often pointed flaw in web-based cryptographic applications is the fact that there is no way to trust online software distributions. Put differently, you don’t actually trust the software authors but are rather trusting the software distributors and certificate authorities (CAs).

I’ve been talking with a few folks in the past months about that and they suggested me to publish something to discuss the matter. So here I come!

The problem (Attack vectors)

Let’s try to describe a few potential attacks:

Application Authors just released a new version of their open source web crypto messaging application. An Indie Hoster installs it on their servers so a wide audience can actually use it.

Someone alters the files on Indie Hoster servers, effectively replacing them with other altered files with less security properties / a backdoor. This someone could either be an Evil Attacker which found its way trough, the Indie Hoster or a CDN which delivers the files,

Trusted Certificate Authorities (“governments” or “hacking team”) can also trick the User Agents (i.e. Firefox) into thinking they’re talking to Indie Hoster even though they’re actually talking to a different server.

Altered files are then being served to the User Agents, and Evil Attacker now has a way to actually attack the end users.

Problem Mitigation

Part of the problem is solved by the recently introduced Sub Resource Integrity (SRI). To quote them: “[it] defines a mechanism by which user agents may verify that a fetched resource has been delivered without unexpected manipulation.”.

SRI is a good start, but isn’t enough: it ensures the assets (JavaScript files, mainly) loaded from a specific HTML page are the ones the author of the HTML page intends. However, SRI doesn’t allow the User Agent to ensure the HTML page is the one he wants.

In other words, we miss a way to create trust between Application Authors and User Agents. The User-Agent currently has to trust the Certificate Authorities and the delivery (Indie Hoster).

For desktop software distribution: Crypto Experts audit the software, sign it somehow and then this signature can be checked locally during installation or runtime. It’s not automated, but at least it’s possible.

For web applications, we don’t have such a mechanism, but it should be possible. Consider the following:

Chosing who you trust

In terms of user experience, handling certificates is hard, and that’s where the community matters. Distributions such as Tails could chose who they trust to verify the files, and issue warnings / refuse to run the application in case files aren’t verified.

But, as highligted earlier, CAs are hard to trust. A new instance of the same CA system wouldn’t make that much differences, expect the fact that distributions could ship with a set of trusted authorities (for which revocation would still need to be taken care of).

[…] users are vulnerable to MitM attacks by the authority, which can vouch for, or be coerced to vouch for, false keys. This weakness has been highlighted by recent CA scandals. Both schemes can also be attacked if the authority does not verify keys before vouching for them.

SoK : Secure Messaging;

It seems that some other systems could allow for something more reliable:

Melara et al proposed CONIKS, using a series of chained commitments to Merkle prefix trees to build a key directory […] for which individual users can efficiently verify the consistency of their own entry in the directory without relying on a third party.

This “self- auditing log” approach makes the system partially have no auditing required (as general auditing of non-equivocation is still required) and also enables the system to be privacy preserving as the entries in the directory need not be made public. This comes at a mild bandwidth cost not reflected in our table, estimated to be about 10 kilobytes per client per day for self-auditing.

SoK : Secure Messaging;

Now, I honestly have no idea if this thing solves the whole problem, and I’m pretty sure this design has many security problems attached to it.

However, that’s a problem I would really like to see solved one day, so here the start of the discussion, don’t hesitate to get in touch!


It seems possible to increase the level a user has in a Web Application by adding indicators in the User-Agent. For instance, when using an application that’s actually signed by someone considered trustful by the User-Agent (or the distributor of the User-Agent), a little green icon could be presented to the User, so they know that they can be confident about this.

A bit like User-Agents do for SSL, but for the actual signature of the files being viewed.