This year is nearly at the end but it looks like it is really endless, at least from an Information Security Perspective. As a matter of fact this 2011 will leave an heavy and embarassing heritage to Information Security: the Certification Authority authentication model, which has been continuously under siege in this troubled year; a siege that seems endless and which has shown its ultimate expression on the alleged compromise of yet another Dutch Certification Authority: Gemnet.
Gemnet, an affiliate of KPN, has suspended certificate signing operation after an intrusion on its publicly accessible instance of phpMyAdmin (a web interface for managing SQL Database) which was, against any acceptable best practice, exposed on the Internet and not protected by password. As in case of Diginotar, another Dutch Certification Authority which declared Bankrupt few days after being compromised by the infamous Comodo Hacker, Gamnet has the Dutch government among its customers including the Ministry of Security and Justice, Bank of Dutch Municipalities and the police.
After the intrusion, the attacker claimed to have manipulated the databases, and to allegedly have been able to gain control over the system and all of the documents contained on it, although KPN, claims the documents contained on the server were all publicly available. Moreover the attacker claimed the attack was successful since he could obtain the password (braTica4) used for administrative tasks on the server. As a precaution, while further information is collected about the incident, Gemnet CSP, KPN’s certificate authority division, has also suspended access to their website.
The breach is very different, in purpose and motivations, from the one occurred to Diginotar, at the end of July, which led to the issuance of more than 500 bogus Certificates (on behalf of Google, Microsoft, and other companies). In case of Diginotar the certificates were used to intercept about 300,000 Iranians, as part of what was called “Operation Black Tulip“, a campaign aimed to eavesdrop and hijack dissidents’ emails. For the chronicles, the same author of the Diginotar hack, the Infamous Comodo Hacker, had already compromised another Certification Authority earlier this year, Comodo (which was at the origin of his nickname). In both cases, the hacks were performed for political reasons, respectively as a retaliation for the Massacre of Srebrenica (in which the Comodo Hacker claimed the Dutch UN Blue Helmets did not do enough to prevent it), and as a retaliation for Stuxnet, allegedly developed in a joint effort by Israel and US to delay Iranian Nuclear Program.
But although resounding, these are not the only examples of attacks or security incidents targeting Certification Authorities: after all, the attacks against CAs started virtually in 2010 with the infamous 21th century weapon Stuxnet, that could count among its records, the fact to be the first malware using a driver signed with a valid certificate belonging to Realtek Semiconductor Corps. A technique also used by Duqu, the so called Duqu’s son.
Since then, I counted 11 other breaches, perpetrated for different purposes: eavesdropping (as is the case of the Infamous Comodo Hacker), malware driver signatures, or “simple” compromised servers (with DDoS tools as in case of KPN).
At this point I wonder what else we could deploy to protect our identity, given that two factor authentication has been breached, CAs are under siege, and also SSL needs a substantial revision. Identity protection is getting more and more important, since our privacy is constantly under attack, but we are dangerously running out of ammunitions.
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In this post I explained that, what I called the mobile warfare (that is social protest driven by mobile technologies and social networks), is rapidly spreading all over the Middle East, apparently with a systematic time scale (so far events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have been separated by approximately a month).
Many observers claim that, in the shorter term, Syria and Bahrain could be the next targets of internal protests (last week 150 people were killed in Syria and today the government led by PM Naji Otri has resigned, apparently a quantum shift).
But the wave coming from Maghreb, led by the mobile warfare, seems unstoppable and in the longer term, also Iran and Iraq, the main barriers of fundamentalism, could be affected as well.
Of course, one of the most exciting things of Infosec, is the fact that the reality is always one step ahead of the imagination. As a matter of fact I tried to imagine different ways in which bad guys from totalitarian regimes could prevent mobile technologies and social networks from achieving their scope to encourage citizens to join the protests, including DDoS, Internet connectivity disruption and so on… I could not imagine, however, that one could think to issue rogue certificates for some high profile websites used for email and chat in order, maybe, to intercept cumbersome and subversive communications.
That is exactly what happened with the Comodo Affaire in which some fraudulent certificates were issued by the Comodo Certificate Authority, exploiting a vulnerability of a couple of Italian affiliates (sigh!) globaltrust.it and instantssl.it allowing to issue a legitimate signed certificate on behalf of any requesting entity. This vulnerability was used in order to issue rogue Certificate Signing Request (CSR), that is false request to obtain legitimate SSL certificates for the following web sites:
For those of you, who are not too much practical with Public Key infrastructure and Cryptography, this means that, in simple words, once obtained a rogue certificate one may build a false web site (for instance a false mail.google.com website) to capture precious information normally “traveling” on the web encrypted, for instance username and password of private email. This is called a man-in-the-middle attack.
Since it was discovered that the rogue Certificate Signing Request originated from an ISP located in Iran, an alleged political origin for the attack was proposed, motivating it with the attempt of the Iranian government (enforced by a Cyber Army), to intercept communications and more in general emails and chats belonging to political leaders not “too close” to the positions of Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (mmhh.. at least for the alleged purpose, to me it reminds Operation Aurora, doesn’t it?)
Now, it looks like that a lonely ranger Iranian hacker, not belonging to any army, claimed the to be the only author of hack (at this link the complete history and a detailed analysis of the event). Probably a real Iranian involvement will not ever been confirmed, but to me, the doubt that this action was planned to stop the mobile warfare remains intact. Otherwise I would not be able to understand why only certificates related to secure communication methods were affected, often used by dissidents to organize protests and share news with the world.
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08/13/2011 - My Post on Android Malware Mentioned on Engadget.
04/14/2011 - The Article Smart Grid: L'ultima Frontiera del Cybercrime published on ICT Security Magazine May 2011.
03/14/2011 - Security Summit 2011: Paolo Passeri guest at Round Table "Mobile Security: Rischi, Tecnologie, Mercato"
02/14/2011 - The Article Gears of Cyberwar published on ICT Security Magazine January 2011.
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