Scramble on to fix flaw in SSL security protocol

Inadvertent disclosure forces vendors to speed effort to produce a fix

Software makers around the world are scrambling to fix a serious bug in the technology used to transfer information securely on the Internet.

The flaw lies in the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol, which is best known as the technology used for secure browsing on Web sites whose URLs begin with HTTPS. The bug lets attackers intercept secure SSL communications between computers using what's known as a man-in-the-middle attack.

Although the flaw can only be exploited under certain circumstances, it could be used to hack into servers in shared hosting environments, as well as mail servers, databases and many other secure applications, according to Chris Paget, a security researcher who has studied the issue.

"It's a protocol-level flaw," said Paget, chief technology officer at H4rdw4re LLC, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based security consultancy. "There's a whole lot of stuff that's going to have to get fixed on this one: Web browsers, Web servers, Web load balancers, Web accelerators, mail servers, SQL Servers, ODBC drivers, peer-to-peer protocols."

Although an attacker would first need to hack into the victim's network to launch the man-in-the-middle attack, the results would then be devastating -- especially if the hack was a targeted attack to gain access to a database or a mail server, Paget said.

Because it is so widely used, SSL is constantly under the microscope of security researchers. Late last year, researchers found a way to create fake SSL certificates that would be trusted by any browser, and in August researchers unveiled a handful of new attacks that could compromise SSL traffic. But unlike those attacks, which had to do with the infrastructure used to manage SSL's digital certificates, this latest bug lies in the SSL protocol itself and will be much harder to fix.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the bug was inadvertently disclosed on an obscure mailing list Wednesday, forcing vendors into a mad scramble to patch their products.

The flaw was discovered in August by researchers at PhoneFactor Inc., a mobile phone security company. They had been working for the previous two months with an association of technology vendors called the Industry Consortium for Advancement of Security on the Internet (ICASI) to coordinate an industry-wide fix for the problem, dubbed Project Mogul.

But their careful plans were thrown into disarray Wednesday when SAP AG engineer Martin Rex stumbled across the bug on his own. Apparently unaware of the seriousness of the issue, he posted his observations on the issue to an Internet Engineering Task Force discussion list. It was then publicized by security researcher HD Moore.

By Wednesday afternoon, enough people were talking about the issue that PhoneFactor decided to go public with its findings. "At that point, we felt like the bad guys knew and we felt we had a responsibility for the good guys to know too," said Sarah Fender, vice president of marketing at PhoneFactor in Overland Park, Kan.

Fender couldn't say who was ready to patch the flaw, but she noted that a number of open-source projects are "anxious" to push out a patch. "I think we'll see some patching in the near future," she said.

ICASI could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

Although security experts say the flaw has probably existed for years, it is not thought to have been exploited in any attacks.

"While we consider it to be a material vulnerability, it's not the end of the world," Fender said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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