Dell installs self-signed root certificate on laptops, endangers users' privacy

Dell's XPS 13 with LG TV
Dell's XPS 13 with LG TV Credit: Dell

Attackers could generate rogue certificates to spy on Dell customers' encrypted Web traffic

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Dell laptops are coming preloaded with a self-signed root digital certificate that lets attackers spy on traffic to any secure website.

The reports first surfaced on Reddit and were soon confirmed by other users and security experts on Twitter and blogs. The root certificate, which has the power of a certificate authority on the laptops it's installed on, comes bundled with its corresponding private key, making the situation worse.

With the private key, which is now available online, anyone can generate a certificate for any website that will be trusted by browsers such as Internet Explorer and Google Chrome that use the Windows certificate store on affected laptops. Security experts have already generated proof-of-concept certificates for *.google.com and bankofamerica.com.

The certificate, which is called eDellRoot, was added to Dell consumer and commercial devices starting in August with the intention of providing better customer support, Dell said in an emailed statement: "When a PC engages with Dell online support, the certificate provides the system service tag allowing Dell online support to immediately identify the PC model, drivers, OS, hard drive, etc. making it easier and faster to service."

The certificate introduced an unintended vulnerability, so Dell is now providing customers with removal instructions and will not add it to new devices going forward, the company said. "No personal information has been collected or shared by Dell without the customer’s permission."

Mark Loman, the creator of the HitmanPro anti-malware program, confirmed that the self-signed certificate is the same on all affected Dell laptops and has the same private key.

His company, SurfRight, is already tracking hundreds of systems that have the eDellRoot certificate installed.

"We have Hitman on high alert to take the certificate off machines soon," Loman said via Skype.

The security expert believes that Dell or Microsoft should act soon, before malicious hackers start attacking users. Microsoft has the ability to push an update to Windows systems to remove the certificate.

In order to exploit the issue, attackers must be in a position to intercept traffic from an affected Dell laptop and a HTTPS-enabled website. They can then act as proxy between the laptop and the website by re-encrypting the traffic with a rogue certificate that's signed with the eDellRoot private key.

This is known as a man-in-the-middle attack and can be executed over public Wi-Fi networks or by hacking into routers.

Attackers could also use the eDellRoot private key to sign malware. This could bypass certain application whitelisting products or at the very least could make User Access Control prompts in Windows less scary, Loman said.

"If I were a black-hat hacker, I'd immediately go to the nearest big city airport and sit outside the international first class lounges and eavesdrop on everyone's encrypted communications," said Robert Graham, the CEO of security firm Errata Security in a blog post. "I suggest 'international first class,' because if they can afford $10,000 for a ticket, they probably have something juicy on their computer worth hacking."

Graham describes this as a "drop-everything and panic sort of bug."

This incident is similar to one that involved Lenovo preloading an adware program called Superfish on some of its laptops. The Superfish adware installed a self-signed root CA certificate on all laptops it was preloaded on, exposing users to man-in-the-middle attacks.

It's not yet clear how many models are affected. Users reported finding it on Dell XPS 15 and XPS 13 models, but also on a Latitude and an Inspiron 5000 series model.

Users who believe they might be affected should visit a test website set up by security expert Kenneth White. If the website loads with no certificate error, it's a sign that the computer has the eDellRoot certificate installed.

Removing the certificate from Windows can be done with the Microsoft Management Console. To open it, users can press the windows key + r, type certlm.msc and hit Run. The certificate should be under Trusted Root Certificate Authorities > Certificates.

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