To Clarify Flame And AutoUpdate Security

The Flame used a MITM attack on users via a forged Microsoft certificate. Yes, it attacked you via Windows Update – it sucks but this can happen. Windows update does use a secure connection but apparently one of the certs was using a weak cryptographic hash (this is the most likely avenue of attack, not confirmed that it wasn’t hacked, Microsoft says ‘collison attack’) and, as I posted about the other day, Flame used this against its victims.

This is scary in that it’s kinda like your antivirus being exploited or some such thing. Updates should keep you safe, not put you in danger.

That said this wasn’t a typical case. While it still demonstrates the issue of trusting a single authority to verify contents (I’m not sure how well the Windows Update feature is handled, Linux has a lot of verification) it isn’t the typical case – they needed a few things to line up and one of those was probably a really weak cert as well as a mistake that led to those certs being connected to root certs. Most root certs aren’t MD5 anymore so it makes things more difficult for attackers to MITM without outright stealing them.

A lot of people have been critical of Chrome and Adobe Flash’s new autoupdate features. They say that this will be exploited. While it’s possible it isn’t hard to make autoupdating fairly difficult to hack, it’s a matter of strong crypto and a lot of verification. Remaining up to speed on patches is far more important than worrying about targeted attacks involving hacked certs – exercise some risk management here.

Think about it this way. If you didn’t ever update you were safe from the Flame directly trying to MITM you but it also attacked you using vulnerabilities that have patches out already. And there are a hundred other vulnerabilities it could have used if you hadn’t patched.

If you’re super paranoid you can try to download patches directly from what you can verify is a ‘trusted’ network and then implement them like hotfixes. I don’t recommend this. In fact, forget I said it.

Anyways, (and I say this with full knowledge of the irony) you should run Windows Update to remove the faulty certs.

If you’re fully up to date that should really cover it for preventing Flame infections.

Fixing A Broken CA System – Perspectives And Convergence

ImageCertificate Authorities (CAs) hand out digital signatures that websites can use to do two things. They can provide encryption and verification – the connection between you and the server is encrypted and the Certificate Authority has verified that the website is ‘legitimate.’ Encrypting the connection attempts to stop Man In The Middle Attacks (MITM.)

Man In The Middle

A Man In The Middle attack is when an attack gets between you and the server and reads or interferes with the data. This means that the attacker can read passwords sent to a website, read an email, read anything. They can also redirect you to an exploit page or change the information in other ways.

If the information is encrypted, as it is with SSL, then MITM attacks are more difficult (more on cracking and bypassing SSL in another post.)

Why The CA System Is Broken

If the entire web were encrypted and verification were a perfect process and CAs couldn’t be hacked or tricked it would all work beautifully. Obviously all of this is impossible, so the system has to change.

Comodo and VeriSign make up the vast majority of certificates used for websites. Between the two of them they hold the majority of the CA market share but neither one has a pristine record for security. Comodo was hacked by someone who is most likely a novice hacker and VeriSign has accidentally issued certificates to malware in the past. They aren’t the only ones to have been hacked, DigiNotar brought a lot of press to the situation when they were hacked and for all we know this has happen without users finding out.

There’s also the problem of trust – we can’t really trust every single CA. Some CAs have handed out certs that allow MITM attacks for companies/ government to spy on users.

Servers can sign their own certs but then a user has no way of knowing if the cert is legitimate (hackers can provide one) and browsers will give tons of warnings about it.

The Solution

Convergence essentially works by checking the certificate against notaries. These various notaries all have information on the certificate and if the information doesn’t match you can assume that there’s something wrong. Instead of verification happening on the CA level it’s handled by many different independent notaries.

Users have full control over which notaries they use. Whereas on WordPress I’m forced to take’s word on this website being legitimate with Convergence I could choose any notary I like.

CAs could act as notaries as well but the current system has the two segregated. This may not always be the case.

If you’re looking to installĀ ConvergenceĀ it’s Firefox only and Google (Microsoft, Apple) has not shown interest in supporting it.