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Delay in disclosing SSL theft put Iranian activists at risk, says researcher

Hacked security company disputes charge

March 24, 2011 02:11 PM ET

Computerworld - The delay in disclosing a theft of the digital certificates for some of the Web's biggest sites, including Google, Skype, Microsoft and Yahoo, put Iranian activists' lives at risk, a researcher argued Wednesday.

Comodo, the Jersey City, NJ-based security company whose reseller issued the bogus certificates, disputed the charge, saying that at no time was anyone at risk.

Last week, attackers used a valid username and password to obtain nine SSL certificates -- used to prove that a site is legitimate -- from an Comodo affiliate. The certificates were for six Web sites, including the log-on sites for Microsoft's Hotmail, Google's Gmail, the Internet phone and chat service Skype, and Yahoo Mail. A certificate for Mozilla's Firefox add-on site was also acquired.

At least one of the certificates, for logon.yahoo.com, was used to legitimize a fake Yahoo site hosted by an Iranian ISP (Internet service provider), Comodo said yesterday.

Comodo's CEO and founder, Melih Abdulhayoglu, said there was evidence, largely circumstantial, that the Iranian government had backed the hack of its partner to obtain SSL certificates.

"I'm betting on Iran," said Abdulhayoglu, who said that the original attack on its reseller originated from that country. "It was too well executed for cybercriminals. It was very well planned, and they knew exactly what to get."

If that was the case, then Iranian authorities could have manipulated the country's DNS infrastructure -- the Internet's traffic routing mechanism -- to divert any Iranian users trying to reach, say, Yahoo Mail, to a fake version secured by the stolen certificate. When an Iranian logged into his Yahoo Mail account, he would have then unknowingly given his username and password to authorities, who in turn could use those credentials to read his e-mail.

Comodo waited eight days before disclosing the attack, using that time to investigate, revoke the certificates and contact browser makers such as Google, Mozilla and Microsoft so that they could issue updates to block the bogus certificates.

That delay put Iranians at risk, said Jacob Appelbaum, a researcher at the University of Washington's Security and Privacy Research Lab. Appelbaum independently uncovered the theft of the certificates last week, and contacted Comodo, Mozilla and Google with his findings.

On Tuesday, Appelbaum published his analysis on the Tor Project's blog. Tor is a system that lets people connect to the Web anonymously, and is often used in countries where governments monitor their citizens' online activities.

"By keeping this quiet for eight days, Comodo and others put lives at risk," said Appelbaum, referring to Iranian anti-government activists who may have been redirected to fake sites and thus revealed their identities and plans. "They were completely unable to protect themselves during that time. Users should have had this information sooner."



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