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Kenneth van Wyk: Security failures could erode public trust in the Internet

Recent attacks could reverberate and undercut the public's faith that the Internet is a trustworthy medium for doing business

By Kenneth van Wyk
September 20, 2011 10:16 AM ET

Computerworld - There's big trouble in the world of information security, and yet it seems that only a handful of us techies have noticed. What's the problem, you ask? Well, there are actually several problems, but they're all related to one very important issue: public trust. Let's take a look.

The first problem cropped up a few months ago when some miscreants succeeded in compromising a pile of RSA's SecureID tokens, rendering many devices vulnerable to serious attack. That attack caused RSA to undertake a costly replacement of many tokens for its customers. It was also reported to be the key enabler for additional attacks against some of those customers.

More recently, there have been a few attacks against some commercial certificate authorities (CA) such as DigiNotar in the Netherlands. That one resulted in the attackers generating hundreds of forged SSL certificates purporting to be from Microsoft, Google and many others.

What do these things have in common, and why should we be so concerned about them? They erode the confidence of some pretty important security infrastructures. In the cases above -- which are just a few among many we've seen lately -- the products involved are used by thousands and thousands of companies and individuals.

The situation with SSL certificates is even more dire -- they are used by millions of people. Indeed, every browser on the planet that can connect to an encrypted site uses SSL, and the certificates form the hierarchical basis of that trust.

SSL certificates need to be signed by a CA. Our browsers and operating systems come with a set of trusted "root CAs." Any SSL certificate signed by a trusted root CA is itself trusted.

So the problem when someone is able to successfully attack a CA is that our basis of trust is compromised, making possible a man-in-the-middle attack, among other things. And that's exactly what reportedly happened to hundreds or thousands of Google Mail customers in Iran. Their "trusted" connections to Google Mail have potentially (or actually) been compromised, exposing their log-in credentials to the attackers -- or worse.

There are some short-term responses that need to be done, of course, and by and large, they are being properly pursued. The DigiNotar CA organization has now effectively been disabled for any computer that has been updated by Microsoft, Apple, etc. Any SSL certificate signed by DigiNotar should now be unworkable.

But that's really not where my primary concern lies. I have strong confidence that the various operating system and browser vendors will quickly patch their products. It's the longer-term issues that are more troubling to me.

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