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2/19/2015
03:45 PM
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Superfish Compromises All SSL Connections On Lenovo Gear

More than just pre-installed adware on some Lenovo laptops, Superfish acts as a man-in-the-middle certificate authority, hijacking every SSL session the laptop makes.

PC manufacturer Lenovo has confirmed that it had -- between mid-2014 to mid-January -- shipped laptops pre-loaded with the Superfish adware application. The problem with Superfish isn't that it's annoying adware. The problem is that it compromises the sanctity of all SSL connections a Lenovo client machine makes. (As though SSL didn't have enough problems.)

Security researcher Marc Rogers drew attention to the problem in a blog post, Wednesday. Paco Hope, principal consultant for Cigital, provided more analysis as well.

The intended purpose of Superfish is to serve targeted ads to Lenovo users. It does so by looking over users' shoulders when they're web browsing, peeking at the images being displayed, then serving up ads similar to those images -- the idea being that if a user is already interested in a vacuum cleaner, maybe they'd be grateful for more info about great deals on vacuum cleaners.

Lenovo's reason for pre-loading Superfish is to make some extra cash, since they, like most client machine manufacturers, don't profit greatly from selling laptops.

If only spying on users and pelting them with ads was the worst Superfish did.

Essentially, Superfish hijacks every SSL connection and operates as a man in the middle certification authority (CA). See, every computer contains a certificate store with trusted certs pre-installed by the operating system or browser. Yet, Superfish also installs its own certificate -- not approved by the OS or browser -- into the laptop's cert store -- meaning that the machine will always trust anything signed by Superfish.

And as it is implemented on those Lenovo clients, everything is signed by Superfish -- web sessions, VPNs, software updates, etc. For example, when a website -- say, Bank of America -- attempts to initiate a secure connection with a browser, Superfish intercepts the communication. It (not the browser) decrypts the site, inspects it for "suitability of advertisements, and then a new encrypted connection will be made from the Superfish process to Bank of America," explains Hope. "Likewise, the web page sent back by Bank of America might have advertisments inserted into the HTML by Superfish."

Adding insult to injury, Superfish does not seem to check whether or not the initial certificate (from Bank of America, or wherever) was, itself, legitimate. So, while a user's browser might issue a warning message that "this site's certificate is untrusted/expired," Superfish may not do that due diligence.

Plus, the Superfish certificate uses the SHA-1 algorithm -- so it may be trashing a stronger SHA-2 cert in favor of a weaker one.

"It is hard to overstate how catastrophically bad this design is," writes Hope. "[Superfish] doesn’t merely insert advertisements into web pages. It undermines every secure connection the Windows computer might make. Lots of software—way beyond web browsers—use the certificate store to fetch certificates. ... Everything on a Lenovo computer that says it is 'making a secure connection' is now lying."

It gets worse.

"The catastrophic failure," writes Hope, "is that Superfish installs a certificate at the highest level of trust, and they ship both the public key and private key that belong to it on every single laptop. Once that private key is known, then anyone can issue certificates for web sites or VPN concentrators and sign them with this Superfish private key. Users of Lenovo laptops who trust the Superfish key will accept those certificates as genuine."

It effectively disables "the laptop’s ability to distinguish genuine web sites from fake" ones, he says.

Lenovo said that it stopped pre-loading Superfish last month and has since disabled existing implementations. Unfortunately, axing the app is not enough -- the more important job is deleting the certificate, and that's something users must do manually. (Microsoft provides instructions on how to do so. LastPass has done similarly, and created a tool for checking if Superfish is running on your machine.)

The damage to Lenovo's reputation may already be done.

"This is unbelievably ignorant and reckless of [Lenovo]," Rogers wrote. "It's quite possibly the single worst thing I have seen a manufacturer do to its customer base. At this point I would consider every single one of these affected laptops to be potentially compromised and would reinstall them from scratch."

"Recent revelations about Lenovo enabling MiTM attacks are similar to what was reported last month about the Gogo service," says Kevin Bocek, VP of security strategy and threat intelligence at Venafi. "You’ve got good guys doing what the bad guys do. In this case, they're breaking everything that’s been built over 20 years to create trust and privacy on the Internet, by inserting a CA into systems that can impersonate any trusted site.

"This is exactly what bad guys do with Trojans and other malicious software," he adds, "to trick users to access fake sites to surveil/monitor private communications."

Ken Westin, senior security analyst from Tripwire says that, despite the economic reasons for pre-loading its laptops with adware, Lenovo hasn't done itself any favors. "With increasingly security- and privacy-conscious buyers, laptop and mobile phone manufacturers may well be doing themselves a disservice by seeking outdated advertising based monetization strategies," he says. "If the findings are true and Lenovo is installing their own self-signed certificates, they have not only betrayed their customers’ trust, but also put them at increased risk.”

Timo Hirvonen, senior researcher of F-Secure put it succinctly:

Sara Peters is Senior Editor at Dark Reading and formerly the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad ... View Full Bio

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Sara Peters
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Sara Peters,
User Rank: Author
2/26/2015 | 9:32:15 AM
Re: This is actually pretty funny.
@rjones2818   "it's a pretty sad statement on computer business practices." So true. It makes me wonder, though, how will client hardware manufacturers manage to make money if they get choosy about what software they pre-load. I certainly they do a better job than Lenovo did, but it does seem like laptop makers need to find some new revenue streams.
gwilson001
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gwilson001,
User Rank: Strategist
2/23/2015 | 1:52:56 PM
Re: no one blaming the chinese govt yet?
Don't rule out Chinese government involvement in this - they have their fingers in every technology business in China.  This wasn't easily found and there is no telling how long it went before it was discovered.  How many Lenovo's were purchased by various US or other western agencies?  Imagine the value to the Chinese of having a MiTM shipped with every machine. 

Unfortunately, this is modern China and we in the west must wise up when making purchases of any technology manufactured in China by a Chinese company.  There's slightly less risk with products made in China by western companies as long as there is strict oversight and the Chinese are not left to run the show on their own.  Even then the risk is high.  The Chinese are driven by two goals: greed and military superiority over the west.  There are few if any regulations in place to stifle these two objectives.
Dr.T
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Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/22/2015 | 10:01:10 AM
Re: This is actually pretty funny.
I agree, at the same time there is no profit margin on PC and Laptop sales, they have to earn money somewhere, I would think that is what pushed them to this posit.
Dr.T
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50%
Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/22/2015 | 9:57:41 AM
Re: no one blaming the chinese govt yet?
It think it is less government more Company's effort to increase revenue and profit. Governments would not do something like this easily visible to others.
Dr.T
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50%
Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/22/2015 | 9:53:32 AM
Re: Lenovo, Really?
Agree. First they should have avoided putting such product into their laptops then they needed to be more careful in their PR efforts.
Dr.T
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50%
Dr.T,
User Rank: Ninja
2/22/2015 | 9:50:13 AM
Very toxic product
Why would anybody put such an adware into their products? I have used Lenovo laptops, I liked them very much but based on the description given above how would anybody a product such as Superfish into their portfolio, this is very toxic.
LAGUY88
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LAGUY88,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/20/2015 | 6:51:50 PM
Re: Lenovo, Really?
China at its best. We act WEAK and submit. US has to stop acting like a member of 50 Shades of Grey.

US............................... Man Up!
SgS125
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SgS125,
User Rank: Ninja
2/20/2015 | 2:26:37 PM
no one blaming the chinese govt yet?
Gee if this was a US comapny we might think the NSA was behind the whole thing.
rjones2818
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50%
rjones2818,
User Rank: Strategist
2/20/2015 | 10:38:27 AM
This is actually pretty funny.
A computer manufacturer trusts a snooping software to be on the up and up.  NInd you, they (both the manufactuer and the snooper vendor) don't really give a damn about the consumer beyond said consumer's money, so it's not really a surprise.


Actually...it's a pretty sad statement on computer business practices.
Marilyn Cohodas
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50%
Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Strategist
2/19/2015 | 4:45:26 PM
Lenovo, Really?
"The damage to Lenovo's reputation may already be done." -- (deservedly so & perhaps the understatement of the year.) 
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