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Ever wanted to be an Intermediate Certificate Authority?

Speaking at the 25th annual Chaos Communication Conference (25C3) early last week, security researchers demonstrated the first known application of a years-old theoretical attack against the MD5 hashing algorithm used by companies like Verisign and Thawte to issue SSL certificates.

SSL certificates use hash codes generated by a variety of algorithms, including MD5, to verify their issuer’s identity. The hash code is an important feature of public-key cryptography, which SSL is based upon, as it is essential to protecting the secret, private code that CAs use to sign SSL certificates.

By exploiting a weakness specific to hashes generated with the MD5 algorithm – namely, that they are prone to “collisions”, or multiple inputs producing the same output – an attacker could derive a working private key from a single, regular SSL certificate, and then use that key to sign future SSL certificates with the original CA’s signature.

Security experts have known about the possibility for MD5 collisions since at least 2004. Until now, however, the vulnerability was dismissed as a theoretical possibility due to the amount of CPU time needed to attack a single hash for collisions. The 25C3 presenters claim they were able to run the attack in only four weekends, using a network of 200 PlayStation 3 game consoles at a cost of $657.

For about $2,000, said the presenters, an attacker could pull off a similar attack using Amazon’s cloud-computing EC2 service, and the attack would take about a day.

A successful attack would allow attackers to appoint themselves as an Intermediate Certificate Authority, and then generate trusted certificates without having to contact a real CA. The spoofed certificates could then be used to add the appearance of legitimacy to a phishing site designed to steal bank account passwords, for example.

While many CAs have moved on to the more secure SHA-1 or SHA-2 algorithms, a handful of issuers have not. Of the brands still using MD5, the researchers found approximately 97% of those certificates to be signed by Verisign-owned low-cost CA RapidSSL. Other companies using MD5 include FreeSSL, Thawte, and

Verisign announced that it will replace RapidSSL customers’ certificates free of charge.

“This successful proof of concept shows that the certificate validation performed by browsers can be subverted and malicious attackers might be able to monitor or tamper with data sent to secure websites,” said security researcher Alexander Sotirov, who worked with others from the U.S., the Netherlands, and Switzerland.

Sotirov’s website includes a detailed explanation of the attack, as well as samples of a real certificate and the rogue signing certificate derived from it.

Extended-Validation SSL certificates are immune to the attack due to the fact that they are forbidden from using MD5.

Microsoft reportedly downplayed the threat, noting that the researchers withheld important information that renders the attack “not repeatable”.

A blog post from Verisign’s Tim Callahan says his company applauds the team’s research, noting that their work was so secret that not even Verisign had access to the information before the 25C3 presentation.

Customers holding an MD5-signed SSL certificate will need to contact their CA to acquire and install a new certificate on their servers.

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Nothing is unhackable...
By Motoman on 1/5/2009 11:26:22 AM , Rating: 3
...pending possibly true quantum computing, and my vote isn't cast for that one yet anyway.

It's not technically possible for anyone to say any code, cypher, encryption, etc. is unhackable. Anything can be hacked granted sufficient time and enough monkeys banging on typewriters. DRM being another blindingly obvious example.

In the case of encryption, it's really just going to be a perpetual cat-and-mouse game (pending wonders of physics via entangled pairs or something else in true quantum computing). Encryptors are just going to keep having to increase the size/complexity of their stuff to keep the "hack" time to levels that aren't reasonable with current technology. MD5 is just now hackable with current technology within a reasonable time frame - they need to punt it back out over the horizon where it would take a few years to hack it again.

By foolsgambit11 on 1/5/2009 7:15:43 PM , Rating: 2
The key to useful encryption (using current-style methodology) is in the ratio between the time needed to encrypt/decrypt using the encryption method versus the time needed to exploit the method.

Unfortunately for cryptography, thanks to distributed computing models, the cost/flop (and the availability of large computing systems) has gone way down. But the ability to handle the regular encrypt/decrypt for the encryption method still needs to be contained on a single system, for obvious security reasons. This means that the overhead of the encryption systems will have to get inconveniently large to overcome current cracking techniques. Additionally, distributed computing will probably grow in the future, further narrowing the gap between (en/de)crypt and cracking.

So people conducting sensitive business on computer networks will probably have to get used to slower and slower activity thanks to crypto workload growing faster than computing capability.

Another possible technique - instead of increasing the length of the encryption key, you can change keys more often. You run up against some dangers with key distribution and verification that way, though.

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