Security industry professionals should be focusing on the vulnerabilities inherent in the DNS infrastructure and not that Comodo Security incorrectly issued certificates, says Comodo CEO Melih Abdulhayoglu.
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
"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
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.