What Regular Users Need To Know About The SSL/Root Certificate Authority Exploit
Update: Verisign already closed the hole.
This morning (in the US- afternoon in Europe), a team of security researchers revealed that they are in possession of a forged Certificate Authority digital certificate that pretty much breaks the whole idea of a trusted website. It allows them to create a fake SSL certificate that your browser will accept for any website.
The short summary is that this isn’t something you need to worry about as an individual, there isn’t anything you can do about it, and the odds are extremely high that the hole will be closed before any bad guys can take advantage of it.
Now for some details and analysis, based on the information they’ve published. Before digging in, if you know what an MD5 hash collision is you really don’t need to be reading this post and should go look at the original research yourself. Seriously, we’re not half as smart as the guys who figured this out. Hell, we probably aren’t smart enough to scrape poop off their shoes (okay, maybe Adrian is, since he has an engineering degree, but all I have is a history one with a smidgen of molecular bio).
This seriously impressive research was released today at the Chaos Computer Congress conference. The team, consisting of Alexander Sotirov, Marc Stevens, Jacob Appelbaum, Arjen Lenstra, David Molnar, Dag Anne Osvik, and Berne de Weger took advantages of known flaws in the MD5 hash algorithm and combined it with new research (and an array of 200 Sony Playstation 3s) to create a forged certificate all web browsers would trust. Here are the important things you need to know (and seriously, read their paper):
- All digital certificates use a cryptographic technique known as a hash function as part of the signature to validate the certificate. Most certificates just ‘prove’ a website is who they say they are. Some special certificates are used to sign those regular certificates and prove they are valid (known as a Certificate Authority, or CA). There is a small group of CAs which are trusted by web browsers, and any certificate they issue is in turn trusted. That’s why when you go to your bank, the little lock icon appears in your browser and you don’t get any alerts. Other CAs can issue certificates (heck, we do it), but they aren’t “trusted”, and your browser will alert you that something fishy might be going on.
- One of the algorithms used for this hash function is called MD5, and it’s been broken since 2004. The role of a hash function is to take a block of information, then produce a shorter string characters (bits) that identifies the original block. We use this to prove that the original wasn’t modified- if we have the text, and we have the MD5 results, we can recalculate the MD5 from the original and it should produce exactly the same result, which must match the hash we got. If someone changes even a single character in the original, the hash we calculate will be completely different from the one we got to check against. Without going into detail, we rely on these hash functions in digital certificates to prove that the text we read in them (particularly the website address and company name) hasn’t been changed and can be trusted. That way a bad guy can’t take a good certificate and just change a few fields to say whatever they want.
- But MD5 has some problems that we’ve known about for a while, and it’s possible to create “collisions”. A collision is when two sources have the exact same MD5 hash. All hash algorithms can have collisions (if they were really 1:1, they would be as long as the original and have no purpose), but it’s the job of cryptographers to make collisions very rare, and ideally make it effectively impossible to force a collision. If a bad guy could force an MD5 hash collision between a real cert and their a fake, we would have no way to tell the real from the forgery. Research from 2004 and then in 2007 showed this is possible with MD5, and everyone was advised to stop using MD5 as a result.
- Even with that research, forging an MD5-based digital certificate for a CA hadn’t ever been done, and was considered very complex, if not impossible. Until now. The research team developed new techniques and actually forged a certificate for RapidSSL, which is owned by Verisign. They took advantage of a series of mistakes by RapidSSL/Verisign and can now fake a trusted certificate for any website on the planet, by signing it with their rogue CA certificate (which carries an assurance of trustworthiness from RapidSSL, and thus indirectly from Verisign).
- RapidSSL is one of 6 root CAs that the research team identified as still using MD5. RapidSSL also uses an automatic system with predictable serial numbers and timing, two fields the researchers needed to control for their method to work. Without these three elements (MD5, serial number, and timing) they wouldn’t be able to create their certificate.
- They managed to purchase a legitimate certificate from RapidSSL/Verisign with exactly the information they needed to use the contents to create their own, fake, trusted Certificate Authority certificate they can then use to create forged certificates for any website. They used some serious math, new techniques, and a special array of 200 Sony PS3s to create their rogue certificate.
- Since browsers will trust any certificate signed by a trusted CA, this means the researchers can create fake certificates for any site, no matter who originally issued the certificate for that site.
- But don’t worry- the researchers took a series of safety precautions, one being that they set their certificate to expire in 2004- meaning that unless you set the clock back on your computer, you’ll still get a security alert for any certificate they sign (and they are keeping it secret in the first place).
- All the Certificate Authorities and web browser companies are now aware of the problem. All they need to do is stop using MD5 (which only a few still were in the first place). RapidSSL only needs to change to using random serial numbers to stop this specific technique.
Thus at this point, your risk is essentially 0, unless Verisign (and the other CAs using MD5) are really stupid and don’t switch over to a different hash algorithm quickly. We are at greater risk of someone like Comodo issuing a bad certificate without all the pesky math.
Nothing to worry about, and hopefully the CAs will avoid SHA1- another hash algorithm that cryptographers believe is prone to collisions.
And I really have to close this out with one final fact:
Chuck Norris collides hash values with his steely stare and power of will.
Update: Yes, if the researchers turn bad or lose control of their rogue cert, we could all be in serious trouble. Or if bad guys replicate this before the CAs fix the hole. I’m qualitatively rating the risk of either event as low, but either is within the realm of possibility.