Iranian Hackers Claim They Compromised NASA SSL Digital Certificate

'Cyber Warriors Team' says it stole information on thousands of NASA researchers via a man-in-the middle attack

A self-professed Iranian hacker gang announced in an online post that it compromised an SSL certificate belonging to NASA and subsequently accessed information on "thousands" of NASA researchers.

Word of the alleged hack by the Iranian Cyber Warriors Team was first reported last week by SecurityWeek, which said NASA confirmed that its security office was "investigating the claim."

A NASA spokesperson had not responded as of this posting to a press inquiry by Dark Reading on the status of the investigation.

But security experts say the hackers' claims could well be true. "[It is] absolutely possible. It was an Iranian hacker who took down DigiNotar last August. And NASA has received lots of negative GAO comments on [its] cyber" security, says Jeffrey Carr, CEO of Taia Global.

The so-called "ComodoHacker" took credit for attacks last year on CA Comodo, as well as DigiNotar, which later went out of the certificate authority (CA) business in the wake of the massive breach.

NASA, meanwhile, has been under scrutiny after an Inspector General report revealed that the agency had suffered nearly 5,500 security incidents between 2010 and 2011, including financially motivated and cyberespionage-type attacks.

The Cyber Warriors Team (CWT) said in its post that it had written an HTTPS protocol scanner to find weaknesses, and had found an existing vulnerability in the NASA website, which was identified as that of NASA's Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES) site. The hackers also posted a link to a screen shot of the hijacked cert.

In a Pastebin post in broken English, the attackers say they were able to grab the CSS file and crack an admin account. "Our target was not Internet sabotage, Our Target was Do 'MAN IN THE MIDDLE' attack," they wrote. "But the problem still exists And its use isn't Hard For We."

The hackers promised to soon post videos of the man-in-the-middle attack and how they were able to steal information on thousands of NASA researchers "With Emails and Accounts of other users." The CWT describes itself as an independent Iranian student group made up of hackers and programmers.

Iran is increasingly appearing on the radar screen when it comes to cyberattacks. Cybersecurity and Iran experts recently warned that while Iran isn't at the top of the list of cyberthreats to the U.S. today, the Iranian government has the intent and motivation to become a major threat, and appears to be shifting from defense to offense.

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said in testimony before Congress last month that the U.S. "conventional wisdom says Iran doesn't pose a threat" given the heavy economic sanctions against it, Berman said. "But for the same reasons, I would make an argument that Iranian asymmetric action against the U.S. is more likely."

Meanwhile, security experts say many organizations don't properly lock down or manage their digital certs. "From early information provided, it is not clear what damage has been done. What is clear is that SSL certificate implementations need to be as bulletproof as possible," says Jeff Hudson, CEO of Venafi. "SSL technology is sound. The big problem is that the management of the certificates and the keys in most organizations today is terrible."

[A new survey found that 54 percent of organizations say they don't have a complete or correct accounting of their SSL certificates, and 44 percent manage their life cycle manually. See Survey: Post-It Notes, Spreadsheets Used To Manage Digital Certificates. ]

Hudson says if the hackers indeed were able to wage a man-in-the-middle attack between the browser and NASA or inside NASA's firewall, the agency will have to replace the compromised certs. "If the agency does not have an automated discovery and management certificate system in place today, they are very vulnerable to compromises," he says. "The extent of damage in this attack remains to be seen. Hopefully it will not be as devastating as some of the compromises we’ve seen over the past couple of years."

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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