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Fake Google Digital Certificates Found & Confiscated

A certificate authority in India had issued rogue certificates for some Google domains, the search engine giant discovers.

Google yesterday said that rogue digital certificates for several Google domains had been issued by an intermediate certificate authority in India connected to the Indian government's CA. The search engine giant on July 2 learned of the "unauthorized" digital certificates, Adam Langley, security engineer with Google, said in a blog post yesterday. The certificates had been issued by the National Informatics Centre of India, which has multiple CAs authorized by India's Controller of Certifying Authorities (CCA). India CCA certificates are in the Microsoft Root Store, so Windows applications such as Internet Explorer and Chrome use them, he said.

Microsoft, meanwhile, said it's unaware of any abuse of its domains via the rogue certificates. "We are aware of the mis-issued third-party certificates and we have not detected any of the certificates being issued against Microsoft domains. We are taking the necessary precautions to help ensure that our customers remain protected," a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement provided to Dark Reading.

Chrome browsers running on non-Windows operating systems such as Chrome OS, Android, iOS, and OS X were not affected, according to Langley, who also pointed out that Chrome on Windows would not have recognized the phony Google certificates, thanks to Google's public-key pinning feature. Public-key pinning basically white-lists in the browser a CA's public key for specific domains. But "mis-issued certificates for other sites may exist," he said.

Google has blocked the phony certificates in Chrome, and India CCA has revoked three certificates issued to NICCA. Chrome users are protected by the new certificate revocation list updates, he said. The company has not seen "widespread abuse" and is not recommending password changes.

Bruce Morton, director of certificate technology and standards at Entrust, a member of the Certificate Authority Security Council, says it's unclear what the rogue domains were intended for, but the obvious options would be surveillance, nation-state spying, and phishing for financial gain.

"The big concern for Google and others is about when [a phony] certificate is used for communications" and at risk of being intercepted, he says. "The day the upper-level CA [in India] revoked those certificates, that took the [intermediate] CA out of business," Morton says. "They might have found more issues than they found with the Google" fake certs, he says.

At the heart of the problem is the blind trust in digital certificates, says Kevin Bocek, vice president of security strategy and threat intelligence at Venafi. "The use of malicious certificates in India to impersonate Google is a serious and alarming threat for everyone," Bocek says. "And even more alarming is what if attackers were compromising certificates used for payment systems, banks, or even e-enabled aircraft from Boeing to Airbus? … This is no longer a hypothetical threat -- the use of malicious certificates in India against Google and its customers is just one more example of how serious this problem is."

Entrust's Morton says there was a certificate validation problem with India's CA. "You always assume the public CAs are guaranteeing the validity of a certificate. If they're not following verification procedures, are they following quality [procedures]?" he asks. "That's a question in my mind," he says.

 

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