12/30/2008
04:57 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary

The (Not Quite) End Of Security On The Internet

Speaking at the 25th annual Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin, security researchers showed how they developed a rogue (forged) Certificate Authority digital certificate. Yes, this is a big deal. But no, the Internet isn't broken.



Speaking at the 25th annual Chaos Communication Congress in Berlin, security researchers showed how they developed a rogue (forged) Certificate Authority digital certificate. Yes, this is a big deal. But no, the Internet isn't broken.Generally speaking, a certificate authority is the trusted source that signs digital certificates (such as SSL certificates), kind of like a notary does in the physical world. That's why, when you're at www.mybankingsite.com, you'll see a lock in your browser. This should mean that the Web site actually is www.mybankingsite.com and that your Web traffic is being sent to that site through a secured communications tunnel.

But as colleague Mike Fratto explains in his post "Yes, Trust In The PKI Is Broken," this new research shows that forging digital certificates is possible and practical.

This is a heavy-duty attack, but there's no new imminent risk to the security of your Web browsing. For now, just use common sense and don't click on links to important Web sites sent to you; manually type in your URL or use your bookmarks. If this vulnerability is exploited, it will probably be used, at least initially, for phishing attacks to steal credentials such as user names/passwords, Social Security numbers, and banking information.

Also, this vulnerability relies on exploiting vulnerabilities in the cryptographic algorithm known as MD5, and this algorithm is already being phased out for a newer scheme known as SHA-1. Today's news will expedite the switch. Which is good.

But don't buy into any the hype that trust on the Internet is doomed (well, no more than it currently is). In the past decade the end of the Internet has been predicted many times, including the famous denial-of-service attacks in 2000, the ASN.1 vulnerability in 2004, and the combined TCP injection vulnerability used in conjunction with a flaw in the Border Gateway Protocol - also in 2004. And who could forget Dan Kaminsky's DNS cache poisoning flaw of earlier this year? All important attacks or vulnerabilities, for certain, but none made a huge impact on the Internet.

My prediction: neither will this.

Here are a few other links you may find helpful in putting all of this together:

  • Brian Krebs' story from the WashingtonPost.com this morning.
  • A well-done layperson's explanation of the flaw at the Security Uncorked blog.
  • And another analysis conducted by Rich Mogull at Securosis.com.

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