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pradeep 5May2005 23:50

SSL in brief
 

Introduction



SSL shorts for Secure Sockets Layer, a protocol developed by Netscape for transmitting private documents via the Internet. SSL works by using a public key to encrypt data that's transferred over the SSL connection. Both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer support SSL, and many Web sites use the protocol to obtain confidential user information, such as credit card numbers. By convention, URLs that require an SSL connection start with "https" instead of "http".

Another protocol for transmitting data securely over the World Wide Web is Secure HTTP (S-HTTP). Whereas SSL creates a secure connection between a client and a server, over which any amount of data can be sent securely, S-HTTP is designed to transmit individual messages securely. SSL and S-HTTP, therefore, can be seen as complementary rather than competing technologies. Both protocols have been approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as a standard. Digital certificates encrypt data using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) technology, the industry-standard method for protecting web communications developed by Netscape Communications Corporation. The SSL security protocol provides data encryption, server authentication, message integrity, and optional client authentication for a TCP/IP connection. Because SSL is built into all major browsers and web servers, simply installing a digital certificate turns on their SSL capabilities.

SSL comes in two strengths, 40-bit and 128-bit, which refer to the length of the "session key" generated by every encrypted transaction. The longer the key, the more difficult it is to break the encryption code. Most browsers support 40-bit SSL sessions, and the latest browsers, including Netscape Communicator 4.0, enable users to encrypt transactions in 128-bit sessions - trillions of times stronger than 40-bit sessions. Global companies that require international transactions over the web can use global server certificates program to offer strong encryption to their customers.

The SSL Protocol

The Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) governs the transport and routing of data over the Internet. Other protocols, such as the HyperText Transport Protocol (HTTP), Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), or Internet Messaging Access Protocol (IMAP), run "on top of" TCP/IP in the sense that they all use TCP/IP to support typical application tasks such as displaying web pages or running email servers.
The SSL protocol runs above TCP/IP and below higher-level protocols such as HTTP or IMAP. It uses TCP/IP on behalf of the higher-level protocols, and in the process allows an SSL-enabled server to authenticate itself to an SSL-enabled client, allows the client to authenticate itself to the server, and allows both machines to establish an encrypted connection.

These capabilities address fundamental concerns about communication over the Internet and other TCP/IP networks:

SSL server authentication allows a user to confirm a server's identity. SSL-enabled client software can use standard techniques of public-key cryptography to check that a server's certificate and public ID are valid and have been issued by a certificate authority (CA) listed in the client's list of trusted CAs. This confirmation might be important if the user, for example, is sending a credit card number over the network and wants to check the receiving server's identity.

SSL client authentication allows a server to confirm a user's identity. Using the same techniques as those used for server authentication, SSL-enabled server software can check that a client's certificate and public ID are valid and have been issued by a certificate authority (CA) listed in the server's list of trusted CAs. This confirmation might be important if the server, for example, is a bank sending confidential financial information to a customer and wants to check the recipient's identity. An encrypted SSL connection requires all information sent between a client and a server to be encrypted by the sending software and decrypted by the receiving software, thus providing a high degree of confidentiality. Confidentiality is important for both parties to any private transaction. In addition, all data sent over an encrypted SSL connection is protected with a mechanism for detecting tampering--that is, for automatically determining whether the data has been altered in transit. The SSL protocol includes two sub-protocols: the SSL record protocol and the SSL handshake protocol. The SSL record protocol defines the format used to transmit data. The SSL handshake protocol involves using the SSL record protocol to exchange a series of messages between an SSL-enabled server and an SSL-enabled client when they first establish an SSL connection. This exchange of messages is designed to facilitate the following actions:

Authenticate the server to the client.
Allow the client and server to select the cryptographic algorithms, or ciphers, that they both support.
Optionally authenticate the client to the server.
Use public-key encryption techniques to generate shared secrets.
Establish an encrypted SSL connection.


Ciphers Used with SSL

The SSL protocol supports the use of a variety of different cryptographic algorithms, or ciphers, for use in operations such as authenticating the server and client to each other, transmitting certificates, and establishing session keys. Clients and servers may support different cipher suites, or sets of ciphers, depending on factors such as the version of SSL they support, company policies regarding acceptable encryption strength, and government restrictions on export of SSL-enabled software. Among its other functions, the SSL handshake protocol determines how the server and client negotiate which cipher suites they will use to authenticate each other, to transmit certificates, and to establish session keys. The cipher suite descriptions that follow refer to these algorithms:

DES - Data Encryption Standard, an encryption algorithm used by the U.S. Government.

DSA - Digital Signature Algorithm, part of the digital authentication standard used by the U.S. Government.

KEA - Key Exchange Algorithm, an algorithm used for key exchange by the U.S. Government.

MD5 - Message Digest algorithm developed by Rivest.

RC2 and RC4 - Rivest encryption ciphers developed for RSA Data Security.

RSA - A public-key algorithm for both encryption and authentication. Developed by Rivest, Shamir, and Adleman.

RSA key exchange - A key-exchange algorithm for SSL based on the RSA algorithm.

SHA-1 - Secure Hash Algorithm, a hash function used by the U.S. Government.

SKIPJACK - A classified symmetric-key algorithm implemented in FORTEZZA-compliant hardware used by the U.S. Government.

Triple-DES
- DES applied three times. Key-exchange algorithms like KEA and RSA key exchange govern the way in which the server and client determine the symmetric keys they will both use during an SSL session. The most commonly used SSL cipher suites use RSA key exchange.

The SSL 2.0 and SSL 3.0 protocols support overlapping sets of cipher suites. Administrators can enable or disable any of the supported cipher suites for both clients and servers. When a particular client and server exchange information during the SSL handshake, they identify the strongest enabled cipher suites they have in common and use those for the SSL session.

Decisions about which cipher suites a particular organization decides to enable depend on trade-offs among the sensitivity of the data involved, the speed of the cipher, and the applicability of export rules.

The SSL Handshake

The SSL protocol uses a combination of public-key and symmetric key encryption. Symmetric key encryption is much faster than public-key encryption, but public-key encryption provides better authentication techniques. An SSL session always begins with an exchange of messages called the SSL handshake. The handshake allows the server to authenticate itself to the client using public-key techniques, and then allows the client and the server to cooperate in the creation of symmetric keys used for rapid encryption, decryption, and tamper detection during the session that follows. Optionally, the handshake also allows the client to authenticate itself to the server.
The exact programmatic details of the messages exchanged during the SSL handshake are beyond the scope of this document. However, the steps involved can be summarized as follows (assuming the use of the cipher suites listed in Cipher Suites with RSA Key Exchange):

1. The client sends the server the client's SSL version number, cipher settings, randomly generated data, and other information the server needs to communicate with the client using SSL.

2. The server sends the client the server's SSL version number, cipher settings, randomly generated data, and other information the client needs to communicate with the server over SSL. The server also sends its own certificate and, if the client is requesting a server resource that requires client authentication, requests the client's certificate.

3. The client uses some of the information sent by the server to authenticate the server (see Server Authentication for details). If the server cannot be authenticated, the user is warned of the problem and informed that an encrypted and authenticated connection cannot be established. If the server can be successfully authenticated, the client goes on to Step 4.

4. Using all data generated in the handshake so far, the client (with the cooperation of the server, depending on the cipher being used) creates the premaster secret for the session, encrypts it with the server's public key (obtained from the server's certificate, sent in Step 2), and sends the encrypted premaster secret to the server.

5. If the server has requested client authentication (an optional step in the handshake), the client also signs another piece of data that is unique to this handshake and known by both the client and server. In this case the client sends both the signed data and the client's own certificate to the server along with the encrypted premaster secret.

6. If the server has requested client authentication, the server attempts to authenticate the client (see Client Authentication for details). If the client cannot be authenticated, the session is terminated. If the client can be successfully authenticated, the server uses its private key to decrypt the premaster secret, then performs a series of steps (which the client also performs, starting from the same premaster secret) to generate the master secret.

7. Both the client and the server use the master secret to generate the session keys, which are symmetric keys used to encrypt and decrypt information exchanged during the SSL session and to verify its integrity--that is, to detect any changes in the data between the time it was sent and the time it is received over the SSL connection.

8. The client sends a message to the server informing it that future messages from the client will be encrypted with the session key. It then sends a separate (encrypted) message indicating that the client portion of the handshake is finished.

9. The server sends a message to the client informing it that future messages from the server will be encrypted with the session key. It then sends a separate (encrypted) message indicating that the server portion of the handshake is finished.

10. The SSL handshake is now complete, and the SSL session has begun. The client and the server use the session keys to encrypt and decrypt the data they send to each other and to validate its integrity. Before continuing with the session, Netscape servers can be configured to check that the client's certificate is present in the user's entry in an LDAP directory. This configuration option provides one way of ensuring that the client's certificate has not been revoked. It's important to note that both client and server authentication involves encrypting some piece of data with one key of a public-private key pair and decrypting it with the other key.

In the case of server authentication, the client encrypts the premaster secret with the server's public key. Only the corresponding private key can correctly decrypt the secret, so the client has some assurance that the identity associated with the public key is in fact the server with which the client is connected. Otherwise, the server cannot decrypt the premaster secret and cannot generate the symmetric keys required for the session, and the session will be terminated.

In the case of client authentication, the client encrypts some random data with the client's private key--that is, it creates a digital signature. The public key in the client's certificate can correctly validate the digital signature only if the corresponding private key was used. Otherwise, the server cannot validate the digital signature and the session is terminated.

Server Authentication

Netscape's SSL-enabled client software always requires server authentication, or cryptographic validation by a client of the server's identity. As explained in Step 2 of The SSL Handshake, the server sends the client a certificate to authenticate itself. The client uses the certificate in Step 3 to authenticate the identity the certificate claims to represent.
To authenticate the binding between a public key and the server identified by the certificate that contains the public key, an SSL-enabled client must receive a "yes" answer to the four questions shown in Figure 2. Although the fourth question is not technically part of the SSL protocol, it is the client's responsibility to support this requirement, which provides some assurance of the server's identity and thus helps protect against a form of security attack known as "man in the middle."

An SSL-enabled client goes through these steps to authenticate a server's identity:

1. Is today's date within the validity period? The client checks the server certificate's validity period. If the current date and time are outside of that range, the authentication process won't go any further. If the current date and time are within the certificate's validity period, the client goes on to Step 2.

2. Is the issuing CA a trusted CA? Each SSL-enabled client maintains a list of trusted CA certificates, represented by the shaded area on the right side of Figure 2. This list determines which server certificates the client will accept. If the distinguished name (DN) of the issuing CA matches the DN of a CA on the client's list of trusted CAs, the answer to this question is yes, and the client goes on to Step 3. If the issuing CA is not on the list, the server will not be authenticated unless the client can verify a certificate chain ending in a CA that is on the list.

3. Does the issuing CA's public key validate the issuer's digital signature? The client uses the public key from the CA's certificate (which it found in its list of trusted CAs in step 2) to validate the CA's digital signature on the server certificate being presented. If the information in the server certificate has changed since it was signed by the CA or if the CA certificate's public key doesn't correspond to the private key used by the CA to sign the server certificate, the client won't authenticate the server's identity. If the CA's digital signature can be validated, the server treats the user's certificate as a valid "letter of introduction" from that CA and proceeds. At this point, the client has determined that the server certificate is valid. It is the client's responsibility to take Step 4 before Step 5.

4. Does the domain name in the server's certificate match the domain name of the server itself? This step confirms that the server is actually located at the same network address specified by the domain name in the server certificate. Although step 4 is not technically part of the SSL protocol, it provides the only protection against a form of security attack known as a Man-in-the-Middle Attack. Clients must perform this step and must refuse to authenticate the server or establish a connection if the domain names don't match. If the server's actual domain name matches the domain name in the server certificate, the client goes on to Step 5.

5. The server is authenticated. The client proceeds with the SSL handshake. If the client doesn't get to step 5 for any reason, the server identified by the certificate cannot be authenticated, and the user will be warned of the problem and informed that an encrypted and authenticated connection cannot be established. If the server requires client authentication, the server performs the steps described in Client Authentication.

After the steps described here, the server must successfully use its private key to decrypt the premaster secret the client sends in Step 4 of The SSL Handshake. Otherwise, the SSL session will be terminated. This provides additional assurance that the identity associated with the public key in the server's certificate is in fact the server with which the client is connect.

Client Authentication

SSL-enabled servers can be configured to require client authentication, or cryptographic validation by the server of the client's identity. When a server configured this way requests client authentication (see Step 6 of The SSL Handshake), the client sends the server both a certificate and a separate piece of digitally signed data to authenticate itself. The server uses the digitally signed data to validate the public key in the certificate and to authenticate the identity the certificate claims to represent.
The SSL protocol requires the client to create a digital signature by creating a one-way hash from data generated randomly during the handshake and known only to the client and server. The hash of the data is then encrypted with the private key that corresponds to the public key in the certificate being presented to the server.

To authenticate the binding between the public key and the person or other entity identified by the certificate that contains the public key, an SSL-enabled server must receive a "yes" answer to the first four questions shown in Figure 3. Although the fifth question is not part of the SSL protocol, Netscape servers can be configured to support this requirement to take advantage of the user's entry in an LDAP directory as part of the authentication process.

How a Netscape Server Authenticates a Client Certificate?

An SSL-enabled server goes through these steps to authenticate a user's identity:

1. Does the user's public key validate the user's digital signature? The server checks that the user's digital signature can be validated with the public key in the certificate. If so, the server has established that the public key asserted to belong to John Doe matches the private key used to create the signature and that the data has not been tampered with since it was signed.

At this point, however, the binding between the public key and the DN specified in the certificate has not yet been established. The certificate might have been created by someone attempting to impersonate the user. To validate the binding between the public key and the DN, the server must also complete Step 3 and Step 4.

2. Is today's date within the validity period? The server checks the certificate's validity period. If the current date and time are outside of that range, the authentication process won't go any further. If the current date and time are within the certificate's validity period, the server goes on to Step 3.

3. Is the issuing CA a trusted CA? Each SSL-enabled server maintains a list of trusted CA certificates, represented by the shaded area on the right side of Figure 3. This list determines which certificates the server will accept. If the DN of the issuing CA matches the DN of a CA on the server's list of trusted CAs, the answer to this question is yes, and the server goes on to Step 4. If the issuing CA is not on the list, the client will not be authenticated unless the server can verify a certificate chain ending in a CA that is on the list (see CA Hierarchies for details). Administrators can control which certificates are trusted or not trusted within their organizations by controlling the lists of CA certificates maintained by clients and servers.

4. Does the issuing CA's public key validate the issuer's digital signature? The server uses the public key from the CA's certificate (which it found in its list of trusted CAs in Step 3) to validate the CA's digital signature on the certificate being presented. If the information in the certificate has changed since it was signed by the CA or if the public key in the CA certificate doesn't correspond to the private key used by the CA to sign the certificate, the server won't authenticate the user's identity. If the CA's digital signature can be validated, the server treats the user's certificate as a valid "letter of introduction" from that CA and proceeds. At this point, the SSL protocol allows the server to consider the client authenticated and proceed with the connection as described in Step 6. Netscape servers may optionally be configured to take Step 5 before Step 6.

5. Is the user's certificate listed in the LDAP entry for the user? This optional step provides one way for a system administrator to revoke a user's certificate even if it passes the tests in all the other steps. The Netscape Certificate Server can automatically remove a revoked certificate from the user's entry in the LDAP directory. All servers that are set up to perform this step will then refuse to authenticate that certificate or establish a connection. If the user's certificate in the directory is identical to the user's certificate presented in the SSL handshake, the server goes on to step 6.

6. Is the authenticated client authorized to access the requested resources? The server checks what resources the client is permitted to access according to the server's access control lists (ACLs) and establishes a connection with appropriate access. If the server doesn't get to step 6 for any reason, the user identified by the certificate cannot be authenticated, and the user is not allowed to access any server resources that require authentication.

What is Apache-SSL?

Apache-SSL is a secure Webserver, based on Apache and SSLeay/OpenSSL. It is licensed under a BSD-style licence, which means, in short, that you are free to use it for commercial or non-commercial purposes, so long as you retain the copyright notices. This is the same licence as used by Apache from version 0.8.15.


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