Security Experts:

Study Finds Rampant Sale of SSL/TLS Certificates on Dark Web

SSL and TLS certificates and related services can be easily acquired from dark web marketplaces, according to an academic study sponsored by Venafi, a company specializing in the protection of cryptographic keys and digital certificates.

The study, conducted by researchers from Georgia State University in the U.S. and the University of Surrey in the U.K., is based on data collected from 60 marketplaces hosted by the Tor network and 17 websites on the I2P network.

The researchers found that five of the marketplaces hosted on Tor (Dream Market, Wall Street Market, BlockBooth, Nightmare Market and Galaxy3) offer a steady supply of certificates and related services. Searching these marketplaces for SSL brings up nearly 3,000 results, which is far more than the number of results for “ransomware” (531 mentions) and “zero-day” (161 mentions).

Some marketplaces, such as Dream Market, seem to specialize in the sale of certificates and related services. SSL/TLS certificates can be highly useful to malicious actors, including for spoofing websites, eavesdropping on traffic, stealing data, and setting up fraudulent e-commerce sites.

SSL/TLS certificates offered for fraudulent e-commerce websites

In addition to the certificates themselves, some sellers offer various services, including post-sale support, domains that have been active for a long period – these so-called “aged domains” make a fraudulent website appear more legitimate – and integration with legitimate payment processors such as PayPal, Stripe and Square.

Prices for the certificates offered on dark web marketplaces typically range between $260 and $1,600. However, the researchers have spotted one seller who, for $2,000, offers certificates from reputable certificate authorities, along with fake documentation that can help someone create a website for what appears to be a trusted U.S. or U.K. company.

“This study found clear evidence of the rampant sale of TLS certificates on the dark net,” said Kevin Bocek, vice president of security and threat intelligence at Venafi. “TLS certificates that act as trusted machine identities are clearly a key part of cybercriminal toolkits – just like bots, ransomware and spyware. There is a lot more research to do in this area, but every organization should be concerned that the certificates used to establish and maintain trust and privacy on the internet are being weaponized and sold as commodities to cybercriminals.”

Venafi has published one report (PDF), titled “SSL/TLS Certificates and Their Prevalence on the Dark Web.” However, this report only presents the study’s preliminary findings and the company says we should expect two more reports.

Related: TLS Certificates for Many .gov Domains Not Renewed Due to Government Shutdown

Related: SSL Increasingly Abused by Malware, Phishing

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.