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[bc-gnso] Hackers exploit chink in Web's armor

  • To: "bc-gnso@xxxxxxxxx" <bc-gnso@xxxxxxxxx>
  • Subject: [bc-gnso] Hackers exploit chink in Web's armor
  • From: Phil Corwin <psc@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 24 Mar 2011 22:12:21 +0000

I'm not sure if there is a role for ICANN in addressing this, but it certainly 
appears to be a major Internet/e-commerce security issue ---


March 24, 2011 4:00 AM PDT
Hackers exploit chink in Web's armor
by Declan <http://www.cnet.com/profile/declan00/> McCullagh and 

A long-known but little-discussed vulnerability in the modern Internet's design 
was highlighted yesterday by a 
report<http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20046340-281.html> that hackers traced 
to Iran spoofed the encryption procedures used to secure connections to Google, 
Yahoo, Microsoft, and other major Web sites.

This design, pioneered by Netscape in the early and mid-1990s, allows the 
creation of encrypted channels to Web sites, an important security feature 
typically identified by a closed lock icon in a browser. The system relies on 
third parties to issue so-called certificates that prove that a Web site is 
legitimate when making an "https://"; connection.

The problem, however, is that the list of certificate issuers has ballooned 
over the years to approximately 650 organizations, which may not always follow 
the strictest security procedures. And each one has a copy of the Web's master 

[Compromise related to fraudulent digital certificates is traced to IP 
addresses in Iran, Comodo says.] 

Compromise related to fraudulent digital certificates is traced to IP addresses 
in Iran, Comodo says.

(Credit: Comodo<http://www.comodo.com/Comodo-Fraud-Incident-2011-03-23.html>)

"There is this problem that exists today where there are a very large number of 
certificate authorities that are trusted by everyone and everything," says 
Peter Eckersley<https://www.eff.org/about/staff/peter-eckersley>, senior staff 
technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation<http://www.eff.org/> who has 
compiled a list of them.

This has resulted in a bizarre situation in which companies like Etisalat, a 
wireless carrier in the United Arab Emirates that implanted 
spyware<http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8161190.stm> on customers' 
BlackBerry devices, possess the master keys that can be used to impersonate any 
Web site on the Internet, even the U.S. Treasury, BankofAmerica.com, and 
Google.com. So do more than 100 German universities, the U.S. Department of 
Homeland Security, and random organizations like the Gemini Observatory, which 
operates a pair of 8.1-meter diameter telescopes in Hawaii and Chile.

It's a situation that nobody would have anticipated nearly two decades ago when 
the cryptographic protection known as SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) began to be 
embedded into Web browsers. At the time, the focus was on securing the 
connections, not on securing the certificate authorities themselves--or 
limiting their numbers.

"It was the '90s," says security researcher Dan <http://dankaminsky.com/> 
Kaminsky, who discovered<http://news.cnet.com/8301-10789_3-9985618-57.html> a 
serious Domain Name System flaw in 2008. "We didn't realize how this system 
would grow." Today, there are now about 1,500 master keys, or signing 
certificates, trusted by Internet Explorer and 

The vulnerability of today's authentication infrastructure came to light after 
Comodo, a Jersey City, N.J.-based firm that issues SSL certificates, alerted 
Web browser makers that an unnamed European partner had its systems 
compromised. The attack originated from an Iranian Internet Protocol address, 
according to Comodo Chief Executive Melih Abdulhayoglu, who told CNET that the 
skill and sophistication suggested a government was behind the intrusion.

Spoofing those Web sites would allow the Iranian government to use what's known 
as a man-in-the-middle attack to impersonate the legitimate sites and grab 
passwords, read e-mail messages, and monitor any other activities its citizens 
performed, even if Web browsers show that the connections were securely 
protected with SSL encryption.

If Comodo is correct about the attack originating from Iran, it wouldn't be the 
first government in the region to have taken similar steps. Late last year, the 
Tunisian government 
 an ambitious scheme to steal an entire country's worth of Gmail, Yahoo, and 
Facebook passwords. It used malicious JavaScript code to siphon off unencrypted 
log-in credentials, which allowed government agents to infiltrate or delete 
protest-related discussions.

Comodo's revelation throws into sharp relief the list of flaws inherent in the 
current system. There is no automated process to revoke fraudulent 
certificates. There is no public list of certificates that companies like 
Comodo have issued, or even which of its resellers or partners have been given 
a duplicate set of the master keys. There are no mechanisms to prevent 
fraudulent certificates for Yahoo Mail or Gmail from being issued by 
compromised companies, or repressive regimes bent on surveillance; Tunisia even 
has its own certificate-issuing government 

"These organizations act as cornerstones of security and trust on the Internet, 
but it seems like they're not doing basic due diligence that other 
organizations are expect to do, like the banks," says Mike Zusman, managing 
consultant at Web app security firm Intrepidus<http://intrepidusgroup.com/> 
Group<http://intrepidusgroup.com/>. "I'm not sure what we need to do but I 
think it's time we start addressing the issue of trust and issues of 
certificate authorities potentially not living up to standards that they should 

Over the last few years, a handful of papers and demonstrations at hacker 
conferences have focused more attention on the topic. But the Comodo intrusion, 
which appears to be the first public evidence of an actual attack on the way 
the Web handles authentication, could be a catalyst for rethinking the way to 
handle security.

Two years ago, for instance, Zusman was able to get a 
certificate<http://intrepidusgroup.com/insight/2009/01/nobody-is-perfect/> from 
Thawte, a VeriSign subsidiary, for "login.live.com" just based on an e-mail 
address he created on the Hotmail domain. Even though it was revoked, it still 
worked in a Web browser during a demonstration at the Black Hat conference in 
Las Vegas. Comodo, too, has previously been shown to have lax security 
standards<https://blog.startcom.org/?p=145> among its resellers as far back as 
December 2008.

"Remember, the only reason Iran has to go to the lengths they've gone to to get 
certificates is because they don't have a (certificate issuer) of their own... 
most countries can just generate their own," says Moxie Marlinspike, chief 
technology officer of mobile app developer Whisper 
Systems<http://www.whispersys.com/>, who has discovered serious 
problems<http://news.cnet.com/8301-27080_3-10299459-245.html> with Web 
authentication before. One problem, he says, is that companies that issue 
certificates have a strong economic incentive to make it as easy as possible to 
obtain them.

Another worrisome aspect is that browser makers don't always have a good way to 
revoke fraudulent certificates. A discussion 
thread<https://bugzilla.mozilla.org/show_bug.cgi?id=642395> at Mozilla.org, 
makers of the Firefox browser, shows that after being alerted by Comodo, they 
had no process to revoke the faux certificates. Mozilla developers ended up 
having to write new code and test a patch, which took a few days and, even 
after its release, meant that only users who downloaded new versions of Firefox 

Google's Chrome, on the other hand, uses a transparent update 
 for desktop versions but not necessarily mobile ones. Microsoft said 
yesterday<http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/advisory/2524375.mspx> that 
"an update is available for all supported versions of Windows to help address 
this issue."

Ross Anderson<http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/>, professor of security 
engineering at the University of Cambridge's computer laboratory, offered an 
anecdote in this paper (PDF<http://spw.stca.herts.ac.uk/2.pdf>): "I asked a 
panelist from the Mozilla Foundation why, when I updated Firefox the previous 
day, it had put back a certificate I'd previously deleted, from an organisation 
associated with the Turkish military and intelligence services. The Firefox 
spokesman said that I couldn't remove certificates--I had to leave them in but 
edit them to remove their capabilities - while an outraged Turkish delegate 
claimed that the body in question was merely a 'research organisation.'"

Jacob Appelbaum, a Tor Project developer who is a subject of a legal 
spat<http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20042277-281.html> with the Justice 
Department over his work with 
<http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-20010866-83.html> WikiLeaks, says Mozilla 
should have warned of the vulnerability immediately and shipped Firefox 4 with 
a way to detect and revoke bad certificates turned on by default. (The 
technique is called Online Certificate Status 
Protocol<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_Certificate_Status_Protocol>, or 

"Mozilla's not taking their responsibility to the Internet seriously," said 
Appelbaum, who wrote an independent 
 of the situation. "A Web browser isn't a toy. It's being used as a tool to 
overthrow governments...At the end of the day, they did not put their users 

Some long-term technical fixes have been proposed, with names like 
CAA<http://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-hallambaker-donotissue-03> (Comodo's 
Philip Hallam-Baker is a co-author), and 
Monkeysphere<http://web.monkeysphere.info/>. The technology known as Domain 
Name System Security 
 or DNSSEC, can help. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Eckersley, who runs 
the groups SSL<https://www.eff.org/observatory> 
Observatory<https://www.eff.org/observatory> that tracks SSL certificates, 
hints that he'll soon offer another proposal about how to reinforce the Web's 
cryptographic architecture.

"We do in fact need a way not to trust everyone," Eckersley says. "We have 
1,500 master certificates for the Web running around. That's 1,500 places that 
could be hacked and all of a sudden you have to scramble to dream up a 

Read more: http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20046588-281.html#ixzz1HYctsBUi

Philip S. Corwin, Founding Principal

Virtualaw LLC

1155 F Street, NW

Suite 1050

Washington, DC 20004




"Luck is the residue of design" -- Branch Rickey

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