TAG | security
On July 2, Google engineers discovered unauthorized certificates for Google domains in circulation. They had been issued by the National Informatics Center in India. They are a trusted sub-authority under the Indian Controller of Certifying Authorities (CCA). They in turn are part of the Microsoft Root Store of certificates, so just about any program running on Windows, including Explorer and Chrome, will trust the unauthorized certificates.
The power of this attack is that the holder of the private key to the certificate can impersonate secure Google servers. Your browser would not report any security alerts because the certificate is “properly” signed and trusted within the built in trust hierarchy.
Firefox does not have the CCA in its root certificate list and so is not affected. Likewise Mac OS, iOS, Android, and Chrome OS are safe from this particular incident as well.
It is not known exactly why these certificates were issued, but the obvious use would be national surveillance.
While this attack seems to be targeted to India and only impacts the Microsoft ecosystem, the larger problem is much more general. There is a long list of trusted certificate authorities, which in turn delegate trust to a vast number of sub-authorities, any of whom can trivially create certificates for any domain which would be trusted by your computer.
In this case the attack was detected quickly, but if it had been very narrowly targeted detection would have been very unlikely and monitoring could have continued over very long periods.
As an end user, you can install Certificate Patrol in Firefox to automatically detect when a website’s certificate is changed. This would detect this kind of attack.
On Chrome you should enable “Check for server certificate revocation” in advanced settings. That will at least allow quick protection once a certificate is compromised.
Update: Microsoft has issued an emergency patch removing trust from the compromised authority.
A vulnerability in LIFX WiFi enabled light bulbs allowed researchers at Context Information Security to control the lights and access information about the local network setup.
The whole “Internet of Things” trend is introducing all kinds of new vulnerabilities. Because these devices tend to be cheap, don’t feel like tech, and don’t expose much user interface, users are unlikely to secure, patch, or otherwise maintain them.
As these devices proliferate in our networks, we will be introducing ever more largely invisible vulnerabilities, usually without any thought to the consequences.
For years, TrueCrypt has been the gold standard open source whole disk encryption solution. Now there is a disturbing announcement on the TrueCrypt website. Right at the top it says “WARNING: Using TrueCrypt is not secure as it may contain unfixed security issues”.
The rest of the page has been changed to a notice that development on TrueCrypt stopped this May, and directions for migrating from TrueCrypt to BitLocker, the disk encryption tool built in to Windows. Of course, this is of little help to anyone using TrueCrypt on Mac or Linux. It is still possible to download TrueCrypt from the site, but the code now will not create new vaults, and warns users to migrate to a new platform.
There are certainly alternatives, but this is a real shock. On Mac, one could always use the built in FileVault tool. Linux users may have a harder time finding a good replacement.
The big question is, what the heck is actually going on here. This is all far too cryptic, with no where near enough actual information to draw intelligent conclusions.
A recent independent audit of TrueCrypt discovered “no evidence of backdoors or otherwise intentionally malicious code in the assessed areas.”
There are a number of theories about what is going on ranging from credulous to paranoid.
- Like Lavabit, they received a National Security Letter requiring compromise of the code. This is their way of resisting without violating the gag order.
- They have been taken over by the government, and they are trying to force everyone to move to a less secure / more compromised solution.
- There really is a gigantic hole in the code. Releasing a fix would tell attackers the exact nature of the vulnerability, which most people would take a very long time to address. Having everyone migrate is the safest solution.
- Some personal conflict within the TrueCrypt developers is leading to a “take my ball and go home” action.
- The developers only cared about protecting windows users with XP or earlier, which did not have the built in disk encryption. Now that XP support has ended, they don’t feel it is valuable any more. This is suggested by the full wording of the announcement.
- The website or one of the developer’s computers was compromised, and this is a hack / hoax.
The whole thing is really odd, and it is not yet obvious what the best course of action might be.
The safest option appears to be to remove TrueCrypt, and replace it with some other solution, either one that is built in to the OS, or from a third party.
The recent Ebay password compromise is just the latest in a string of similar attacks. Each time we hear a call for people to change their passwords. Sometimes the attacked company will require password changes, but more often it is just a suggestion; a suggestion that a majority choose to ignore.
Further exacerbating the problem is the tendency of people to use the same username and password across many different websites. Even if a compromised website does require a password change on that site, it has no way of forcing users to change their passwords on any other sites where the same password was used. This matters because a smart attacker will try any username / password pairs he discovers against a range of interesting websites of value, like banks. Even though the compromise may have been on an unimportant website, it could give access to your most valuable accounts if you re-used the password.
The burden on the user can also be significant. If a password is used on 20 websites, then after a compromise it should be changed on all 20 (ideally to 20 different passwords this time). People who maintain good password discipline only need to change the one password on the single compromised website.
Trying to remember a large number of strong passwords is impossible for most of us. Some common results are that the the passwords are too simple, the passwords all follow a simple and predictable pattern, passwords are re-used, or some or all of these at once.
Many companies and standards organizations are working hard to replace the password with a stronger alternative. Apple is using fingerprint scanners in its latest phones, and tools like OAUTH keep the actual password (or password hash) off the website entirely. Two factor authentication adds a hardware device to the mix making compromise of a password less damaging. So far many of these approaches have shown promise, but all have some disadvantages or vulnerabilities, and none appear to be a silver bullet.
For now, best practice is to use a password vault. I use 1Password but LastPass, Dashlane, and others are also well regarded. Create unique long random passwords for every website (since you no longer need to actually remember any of them). Don’t wait. If you are not using one of these tools, get it and start using it now.