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9/8/2011
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How StartCom Foiled Comodohacker: 4 Lessons

Comodohacker claims to have exploited six certificate authorities including DigiNotar--yet he failed to break into at least one. Here's how StartCom's approach to security worked.

Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, LocalPain
Strategic Security Survey: Global Threat, Local Pain
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Based on the boasts of "Comodohacker," he's compromised six certificate authorities (CAs) this year, including Comodo in March and DigiNotar in July. He's also claimed to have exploited at least four more, including GlobalSign.

But the Comodohacker also said that he was unable to hack into StartCom Certification Authority, despite managing to access its network and a hardware security module (HSM). "I already connected to their HSM, got access to their HSM, sent my request, but lucky Eddy . . . was sitting behind HSM and was doing manual verification," according to a Comodohacker post.

In other words, StartCom successfully defended itself, while--at least by ComodoHacker's count--a half-dozen similar businesses got hacked.

Asked about what exactly tripped up Comodohacker, Eddy Nigg--founder, COO, and CTO of StartCom--said via email that he didn't want to reveal too much. "That's the way he experienced it, [but] from the technical point of view it's obviously a bit different. But I don't want to spoil it and provide unnecessary information, as you might understand."

Technical details aside, what can other businesses learn from StartCom's approach to security? Here are four lessons:

1. Assess Your Business Partners. The attack against Comodo succeeded not in a frontal assault, but by exploiting its reseller business partners. In other words, a business decision by Comodo had security repercussions. "They obviously took an undue risk by letting so-called registration authorities (RA) turned resellers issue certificates directly without any further verification. This is what turned it into a successful attack, by misusing a third party and not Comodo itself," said Nigg. "At StartCom, we made a conscious decision not to implement such a model."

2. In Trust Model, Be Forthright. Why is Comodo still in business, while DigiNotar is not? The issue isn't necessarily that DigiNotar's attacker managed to issue 531 bad certificates, including for Google, Microsoft, as well as the CIA and MI6. Rather, it's that the entire public key infrastructure model is based on trust, and DigiNotar failed to respect that, because its management team didn't warn anyone until weeks after the breach was discovered. "What went wrong [technically] with DigiNotar I really can't say, but the fact that they tried to cover it up was the biggest failure of all," said Nigg. "This is a breach of trust without proportions."

3. Think Like An Attacker. Expect to be hacked. "We anticipated and planned for a possible breaches and attacks in various forms. It's naive to assume that the servers, infrastructure, and networks are secure--one must plan for the event that the front layers are breached, monitor it, detect, and react," said Nigg. Ensure that the plan covers not only policies and procedures, but also program implementation and ongoing operations. And when you get attacked, learn from the experience to make the defenses stronger.

4. Watch Infrastructure Closely. Keep a close eye on infrastructure. "For example, we NEVER leave the CA unattended. We control all critical servers physically and logically all the time. We can shut them down within less than a minute if necessary. We monitor all networks in real time, all the time," said Nigg. "This isn't something you can teach in a few minutes, it's an attitude, a way of life."

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