The key takeaway from the incident where nine fraudulent SSL certificates were issued for popular Websites was not the fact that the certificates were issued, but that the DNS infrastructure is not protected, Comodo Security said.
A day after it was revealed that a Comodo Security partner had been compromised and attackers issued valid digital certificates for certain Google, Yahoo, Skype, Microsoft and Mozilla domains, Melih Abdulhayoglu, CEO and chief security architect of Comodo, came out swinging against critics of his company. The core problem wasn't that certificates were issued fraudulently, but that the attackers "clearly" had control of the DNS infrastructure.
"Breaches will happen," Abdulhayoglu told eWEEK. "But the issue is not the breach on one account on a certificate authority, because without control of the DNS infrastructure, they couldn't do anything with it."
Comodo had said in its incident report that the attack originated from an IP address assigned to an ISP (Internet service provider) in Iran and that one of the issued certificates for Yahoo's log-in page was tested using an Iranian server. Based on these two events and the fact that the Iranian government has been known to attack other encrypted communication mechanisms to snoop on its own citizens, Abdulhayoglu was confident the attack was sponsored by the Iranian government and the targets were the Iranian people using those sites.
"This is my opinion. I don't have proof," Abdulhayoglu said.
The certificates were all issued to the communications infrastructure, not "PayPal, a bank or a financial organization," which is what a typical cyber-criminal would care about, he said. It was clear that a man-in-the-middle attack would have allowed the Iranian government to view what dissidents were reading and saying using these sites, especially considering the recent turmoil in North Africa and the Persian Gulf region, Abdulhayoglu said.
He also noted that in Iran, as far as he knew, all the ISPs and telecommunications companies were state-owned, and DNSes (domain name services) are maintained by the ISPs. Ergo, the state controlled the DNS and in this case the attackers had access to the infrastructure, Abdulhayoglu said.
If Comodo had not detected the breach immediately and responded quickly, the attackers would have succeeded, Abdulhayoglu said. However, Comodo has multiple layers of security and there was no way the breach would have remained undetected long enough to successfully use the certificates, according to Abdulhayoglu.
When told about Sophos security analyst Chester Wisnewski's comment that the fact that Comodo detected and swiftly resolved the breach was a "fluke" because the attackers created a new account, Abdulhayoglu unequivocally said, "He is utterly wrong." However, he declined to discuss the details of security in place to detect breaches.
Jacob Applebaum, a security researcher with the nonprofit Tor Project, noted that certificate issuing authorities do not properly vet the identities of the applicants and that was a weak leak in the chain of trust. Brian Trzupek, Trustwave's vice president of managed identity and SSL concurred, noting that certificate authorities "usually only undergo automated validation where a human review does not occur."
Abdulhayoglu pointed out that may be the case for other certificate authorities that are "fly by night operators offering certificates for $10," but Comodo requires a lengthy process that requires applicants to verify their identity and domain ownership, such as submitting a notarized letter.
Abdulhayoglu has been championing a standard since last fall that could have prevented this incident from happening in the first place. His proposal, if adopted, would have put the control of the DNS in the hands of the domain owner. In this instance, if someone had requested a certificate, the certificate issuing authority would have been required to verify with the domain owner (which is known based on previous transactions) to verify the certificate should be issued. The request becomes a two-way communication, according to Abdulhayoglu.
This is the first time Comodo witnessed a "state funded" attack against the "authentication" infrastructure, said Abdulhayoglu, and Comodo will update its threat model to be aware of future state-level attacks.