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Follow-up on the CA Hack

Yesterday, I posted a long entry on the recent news about how some researchers obtained a “rogue” certificate from one of the Internet Certificate Authorities. There are some points I missed in the original post that should be noted.

  • The authors of the exploit have a very readable, interesting description of what they did and why it worked. I should have included a link to it in the original posting, but forgot to edit it in. The interested reader should definitely see that article online, include the animations.
  • There are other ways this attack can be defeated, certainly, but they are stop-gap measures. I didn’t explain them because I don’t view them as other than quick patches. However, if you are forced to continue to use MD5 and you issue certificates, then it is important to randomize the certificate serial number that is issued, and to insert a random delay interval in the validity time field. Both will introduce enough random bits so as to make this particular attack against the CA infeasible given current technology.
  • I suggested that vendors use another hash algorithm, and have SHA-1 as an example. SHA-2 would be better, as SHA-1 has been shown to have a theoretical weakness similar to MD5, although it has proven more resistant to attack to date. Use of SHA-1 could possible result in a similar problem within a few years (or, as suggested in the final part of my post, within a few weeks if a breakthrough occurs). However, use of SHA-1 would be preferable to MD5!
  • MD5 is not “broken” in a complete way. There are several properties of a message digest that are valuable, including collision resistance: that it is infeasible to end up with two inputs giving the same hash value. To the best of my knowledge, MD5 has only been shown to be susceptible to “weak collisions”—instances where the attacker can pick one or both inputs so as to produce identical hash values. The stronger form of preimage resistance, where there is an arbitrary hash output H and an attacker cannot form an input that also produces H, still holds for MD5. Thus, applications that depend on this property (including many signing applications and integrity tools) are apparently still okay.
  • One of our recent PhD grads, William Speirs, worked on defining hash functions for his PhD dissertation. His dissertation, Dynamic Cryptographic Hash Functions, is available online for those interested in seeing it.

I want to reiterate that there are more fundamental issues of trust involved than what hash function is used. The whole nature of certificates is based around how much we trust the certificate authorities that issue the certificates, and the correctness of the software that verifies those certificates then shows us the results. If an authority is careless or rogue, then the certificates may be technically valid but not match our expectations for validity. If our local software (such as a WWW browser) incorrectly validates a certificate, or presents the results incorrectly, we may trust a certificate we shouldn’t. Even such mundane issues as having one’s system at the correct time/date can be important: the authors of this particular hack demonstrated that by backdating their rogue certificate.

My continuing message to the community is to not lose sight of those things we assume. Sometimes, changes in the world around us render those assumptions invalid, and everything built on them becomes open to question. If we forget those assumptions—and our chains of trust built on them—we will continue to be surprised by the outcomes.

That is perhaps fitting to state (again) on the last day of the year. Let me observe that as human beings we sometimes take things for granted in our lives. Spend a few moments today (and frequently, thereafter) to pause and think about the things in your life that you may be taking for granted: family, friends, love, health, and the wonder of the world around you. Then as is your wont, celebrate what you have.

Best wishes for a happy, prosperous, safe—and secure—2009.

[12/31/08 Addition]: Steve Bellovin has noted that transition to the SHA-2 hash algorithm in certificates (and other uses) would not be simple or quick. He has written a paper describing the difficulties and that paper is online.


A Serious Threat to Online Trust

There are several news stories now appearing (e.g., Security News) about a serious flaw in how certificates used in online authentication are validated. Ed Felten gives a nice summary of how this affects online WWW site authentication in his Freedom to Tinker blog posting. Brian Krebs also has his usual readable coverage of the problem in his Washington Post article. Steve Bellovin has some interesting commentary, too, about the legal climate.

Is there cause to be concerned? Yes, but not necessarily about what is being covered in the media. There are other lessons to be learned from this.

Short tutorial

First, for the non-geek reader, I’ll briefly explain certificates.

Think about how, online, I can assure myself that the party at the other end of a link is really who they claim to be. What proof can they offer, considering that I don’t have a direct link? Remember that an attacker can send any bits down the wire to me and may access to faster computers than I do.

I can’t base my decision on how the WWW pages appear, or embedded images. Phishing, for instance, succeeds because the phishers set up sites with names and graphics that look like the real banks and merchants, and users trust the visual appearance. This is a standard difficulty for people—understanding the difference between identity (claiming who I am) and authentication (proving who I am).

In the physical world, we do this by using identity tokens that are issued by trusted third parties. Drivers licenses and passports are two of the most common examples. To get one, we need to produce sufficient proof of identity to a third party to meet its standards of proof. Then, the third party issues a document that is very difficult to forge (almost nothing constructed is impossible to forge or duplicate—but some things require so much time and expenditure it isn’t worthwhile). Because the criteria for proof of identity and strength of construction of the document are known, various other parties will accept the document as “proof” of identity. Of course, other problems occur that I’m not going to address—this USACM whitepaper (of which I was principal author) touches on many of them.

Now, in the online world we cannot issue or see physical documents. Instead, we use certificates. We do this by putting together an electronic document that gives the information we want some entity to certify as true about us. The format of this certificate is generally fixed by standards, the most common one being the X.509 suite. This document is sent to an organization known as a Certificate Authority (CA), usually along with a fee. The certificate authority is presumably well-known, and performs a check (to their own standards) that the information in the document is correct, and it has the right form. The CA then calculate a digital hash value of the data, and creates a digital signature of that hash value. This is then added to the certificate and sent back to the user. This is the equivalent of putting a signature on a license and then sealing it in plastic. Any alteration of the data will change the digital hash, and a third party will find that the new hash and the hash value signed with the key of the CA don’t match. The reason this works is that the hash function and encryption algorithm used are presumed to be so computationally difficult to forge that it is basically not possible.

As an example of a certificate , if you visit “” you can click on the little padlock icon that appears somewhere in the browser window frame (this is browser dependent) to view details of the CERIAS SSL certificate.

You can get more details on all this by reading the referenced Wikipedia pages, and by reading chapters 5 & 7 in Web Security, Privacy and Commerce.

Back to the hack

In summary, some CAs have been negligent about updating their certificate signing mechanisms in the wake of news that MD5 is weak, published back in 2004. The result is that malicious parties can generate and obtain a certificate “authenticating” them as someone else. What makes it worse is that the root certificate of most of these CAs are “built in” to browser and application trust lists to simplify look-up of new certificates. Thus, most people using standard WWW browsers can be fooled into thinking they have connected to real, valid sites—even through they are connecting to rogue sites.

The approach is simple enough: a party constructs two certificates. One is for the false identity she wishes to claim, and the other is real. She crafts the contents of the certificate so that the MD5 hash of the two, in canonical format, is the same. She submits the real identity certificate to the authority, which verifies her bona fides, and returns the certificate with the MD5 hash signed with the CA private key. Our protagonist then copies that signature to the false certificate, which has the same MD5 hash value and thus the same digital signature, and proceeds with her impersonation!

What makes this worse is that the false key she crafts is for a secondary certificate authority. She can publish this in appropriate places, and is now able to mint as many false keys as she wishes—and they will all have signatures that verify in the chain of trust back to the issuer! She can even issue these new certificates using a stronger hash algorithm than MD5!

What makes this even worse is that it has been known for years that MD5 is weak, yet some CAs have continued to use it! Particularly unfortunate is the realization that Lenstra, Wang and de Weger described how this could be done back in 2005. Methinks that may be grounds for some negligence lawsuits if anyone gets really burned by this….

And adding to the complexity of all this is the issue of certificates in use for other purposes. For example, certificates are used with encrypted S/MIME email to digitally sign messages. Certificates are used to sign ActiveX controls for Microsoft software. Certificates are used to verify the information on many identity cards, including (I believe) government-issued Common Access Cards (CAC). Certificates also provide identification for secured instant messaging sessions (e.g., iChat). There may be many other sensitive uses because certificates are a “known” mechanism. Cloud computing services , software updates, and more may be based on these same assumptions. Some of these services may accept and/or use certificates issued by these deficient CAs.


Fixing this is not trivial. Certainly, all CAs need to start issuing certificates based on other message digests, such as SHA-1. However, this will take time and effort, and may not take effect before this problem can be exploited by attackers. Responsible vendors will cease to issue certificates until they get this fixed, but that has an economic impact some many not wish to incur.

We can try to educate end-users about this, but the problem is so complicated with technical details, the average person won’t know how to actually make a determination about valid certificates. It might even cause more harm by leading people to distrust valid certificates by mistake!

It is not possible to simply say that all existing applications will no longer accept certificates rooted at those CAs, or will not accept certificates based on MD5: there are too many extant, valid certificates in place to do that. Eventually, those certificates will expire, and be replaced. That will eventually take care of the problem—perhaps within the space of the next 18 months or so (most certificates are issued for only a year at a time, in part for reasons such as this).

Vendors of applications, and especially WWW browsers, need to give careful thought about updates to their software to flag MD5-based certificates as deserving of special attention. This may or may not be a worthwhile approach, for the reason given above: even with a warning, too few people will be able to know what to do.

Bigger issue

We base a huge amount of trust on certificates and encryption. History has shown how easy it is to get implementations and details wrong. History has also shown how quickly things can be destabilized with advances in technology.

In particular, too many people and organizations take for granted the assumptions on which this vast certificate system is based. For instance, we assume that the hash/digest functions in use are computationally difficult to reverse or cause collisions. We also assume that certain mathematical functions underlying public/private key encryption are too difficult to reverse or “brute force.” However, all it takes is some new insight or analysis, or maybe new, affordable technology (e.g., practical quantum computing, or massively parallel computing) to violate those assumptions.

If you look at the way our systems are constructed, too little thought is given to what happens to existing infrastructure when something breaks. Designs can include compensating and recovery code, but doing so requires some cost in space or time. However, all too often people are willing to avoid the investment by putting off the danger to “if and when that happens.” Thus, we instance such as the Y2K problems and the issues here with potentially rogue CAs.

(I’ll note as an aside, that when I designed the original version of Tripwire and what became the Signacert product, I specifically included simultaneous use of several different message digest functions in different families for this very reason. I knew it was a matter of time before one or two were broken. I still believe that it is beyond reason to find files that will match multiple, different algorithms simultaneously.)

Another issue is the whole question of who we trust, and for what. As noted in the USACM whitepaper, authentication is always relative to a third party. How much do we trust those third parties? How much trust have we invested in the companies and agencies issuing certificates? Are they properly verifying identities? How good is there internal security? How do we know, and how much is at risk from our trust in those entities?

Let me leave you with a final thought. How do we know that this problem has not already been quietly exploited? The basic concept has been in the open literature for years. The general nature of this attack on certificates has been known for well over a decade, if not two. Given the technical and infrastructure resources available to national agencies and organized criminals, and given the motivation to use this hack selectively and quietly, how can we know that it is not already being used?

[Added 12/31/2008]: A follow-up post to this one is available in the blog.


Do you know where you’re going?

[tags]phishing, web redirection[/tags]
Jim Horning suggested a topic to me a few weeks ago as a result of some email I sent him.

First, as background, consider that phishing and related frauds are increasingly frequent criminal activities on the WWW.  The basic mechanism is to fool someone into visiting a WWW page that looks like it belongs to a legitimate organization with which the user does business.  The page has fields requesting sensitive information from the user, which is then used by the criminals to commit credit card fraud, bank fraud or identity theft.

Increasingly, we have seen that phishing email and sites are also set up to insert malware into susceptible hosts.  IE on Windows is the prime target, but attacks are out there for many different browsers and systems.  The malware that is dropped can be bot clients, screen scrapers (to capture keystrokes at legitimate pages), and html injectors (to modify legitimate pages to ask for additional information).  It is important to try to keep from getting any of this malware onto your system.  One aspect of this is to be careful clicking on URLs in your email, even if they seem to come from trusted sources because email can be spoofed, and mail can be sent by bots on known machines.

How do you check a URL?  Well, there are some programs that help, but the low-tech way is to look at the raw text of a URL before you visit it, to ensure that it references the site and domain you expected.

But consider the case of short-cut URLs.  There are many sites out there offering variations on this concept, with the two I have seen used most often being “TinyURL” and “SnipURL”.  The idea is that if you have a very long URL that may get broken when sent in email, or that is simply too difficult to remember, you submit it to one of these services and you get a shortened URL back.  With some services, you can even suggest a nickname.  So, for example, short links to the top level of my blog are <>, <> and <>.

So far, this is really helpful.  As someone who has had URLs mangled in email, I like this functionality.

But now, let’s look at the dark side.  If Jim gets email that looks like it is from me, with a message that says “Hey Jim, get a load of this!” with one of these short URLs, he cannot tell by looking at the URL whether it points somewhere safe or not.  If he visits it, it could be a site that is dangerous to visit (Well, most URLs I send out are dangerous in one way or another, but I mean dangerous to his computer. grin).  The folks at TinyURL have tried to address this by adding a feature so that if you visit <> you will get a preview of what the URL resolves to; you can set this (with cookies) as your default.  That helps some.

But now step deeper into paranoia.  Suppose one of these sites was founded by fraudsters with the intent of luring people into using it.  Or the site gets acquired by fraudsters, or hijacked.  The code could be changed so that every time someone visits one of these URLs, some code at the redirect site determines the requesting browser, captures some information about the end system, then injects some malicious javacode or ActiveX before passing the connection to the “real” site.  Done correctly, this would result in largely transparent compromise of the user system.  According to the SnipURL statistics page, as of midnight on May 30th there have been nearly a billion clicks on their shortened URLs.  That’s a lot of potential compromises!

Of course, one of the factors to make this kind of attack work is for the victim to be running a vulnerable browser.  Unfortunately, there have been many vulnerabilities found for both IE and Firefox, as well as some of the less well-known browsers.  With users seeking more functionality in their browsers, and web designers seeking more latitude in what they deliver, we are likely to continue to see browser exploits.  Thus, there is likely to be enough of a vulnerable population to make this worthwhile.  (And what browser are you using to read this with?)

I should make it clear that I am not suggesting that any of these services really are being used maliciously or for purposes of fraud.  I am a happy and frequent user of both TinyURL and SnipURL myself.  I have no reason to suspect anything untoward from those sites, and I certainly don’t mean to suggest anything sinister.  (But note that neither can I offer any assurances about their motives, coding, or conduct.)  Caveat emptor.

This post is simply intended as commentary on security practices.  Thinking about security means looking more deeply into possible attack vectors.  And one of the best ways to commit such attacks is to habituate people into believing something is safe, then exploiting that implicit trust relationship for bad purposes. 

Hmm, reminds me of a woman I used to date.  She wasn’t what she appeared, either….  But that’s a story for a different post. 

[posted with ecto]