The Simplicity of a Wordpress Hack

The latest Wordpress hack is serious, but it's not part of some grand conspiracy among hackers.

Over the last week or so, security-focused people have had two big shocks delivered to their world view. These have already been covered in detail by Security Now; namely the KRACK decryption of WPA2-encrypted WiFi which was then followed by the further revelation of the ROCA attack on RSA-style keys.

Both of the vulnerable methods had been both accepted by the security community and were widely used in many situations. One of the reasons for the general acceptance was the certifications that both of them carried, certifications that many thought explicitly proved them to be secure methodologies.

The certifications didn't prove jack, in the end.

Since both methods have been around for years, users have wondered how such a situation could exist unnoticed. Could it have been the result of some con perpetrated by a nation-state who knew it existed but users didn't? There have been approved ECC encryption curves put out in the past that looked OK, but turned out to be easy to decrypt if you knew the right primes to use on them.

On top of all this, Wordfence has found someone is now trying to scan WordPress servers on a massive scale with the objective of finding their secret SSH keys. These are RSA-style keypairs, which could be vulnerable to a ROCA exploit. With a secret key an attacker could log into a Wordpress site as the owner and inject malware of any kind. Could a key have been picked up by listening in to a WiFi connection via KRACK then using a ROCA attack?

No. And this is the point, in a nutshell.

Wordpress leaves its public key on the server. A ROCA attack would use that part alone to come up with a probable secret key. There would be no need for a ROCA attacker to scan for secret keys directly. They would just try to log in with the secret keys that they would derive.

The scan that is being detected is most likely looking for misconfigured sites that reveal a secret key which has been left in the wrong place or perhaps included by a “commit” of their private key into the website source code when using a version control system like Git.

This Wordpress problem has nothing directly to do with the security reveals that have lately emerged. While it may be satisfying to create a conspiracy-style theory to grandly chain together problems with connecting links, the resultant outcome may also be completely wrong. Just having the knowledge of events that are affecting the security landscape does not mean that those events are going to be what is relevant to the problem at hand.

Details matter, especially in security. Just because you suspect something may be a cause of something else doesn’t make it so.

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— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.