certification error screen shot

Lapsed TLS certificates erode federal website security during shutdown

Expired Transport Layer Security certificates on dozens of government websites are rendering them either insecure or inaccessible, a British internet services company reported.

Webpages at agencies such as NASA, the Department of Justice, and the Court of Appeals have expired TLS certificates, according to a Netcraft blog post. The 80 expired certificates used by .gov websites affect payment portals and remote access services at agencies that are shuttered because of the shutdown.

A TLS certificate validates that a site is what it says it is, and it authorizes public key infrastructure encryption for communications between the site's host server and browsers. The certificates must  be renewed every one or two years with the trusted certificate authority that issued them.  

Netcraft cited a page at the Department of Justice's website with an expired certificate that isnow inaccessible. The page's TLS has not been renewed since it expired on Dec. 17, just days before the government shutdown began.

To compound the Justice Department’s TLS problem, Netcraft said all of the Justice Department's domain and subdomains are included in preloaded lists of acceptable domains on popular browsers, such as Chrome and Firefox. The expired TLS certificate now blocks the browsers from the more secure HTTPS sites.

Users can bypass the default blocks, but doing so could render them vulnerable to man-in-the-middle cyberattacks, according to Netcraft.

The company warned that as the shutdown wears on, the problem of expired TLS certificates will only get worse.

"As more and more certificates used by government websites inevitably expire over the following days, weeks -- or maybe even months -- there could be some realistic opportunities to undermine the security of all U.S. citizens," the company said.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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