Hushmail, which markets PGP-encrypted e-mail, file storage and vanity domain services, has opened a criminal investigation with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Vancouver to get to the bottom of a DNS server breach caused by a combination of social engineering, phishing and pharming tactics.
Brian Smith, chief technical officer at Hushmail Communications Corp., said in an interview with Ziff Davis Internet News that the attacker or attackers simply called the Network Solutions Inc. support center and gained access to enough customer account information to alter the Hushmail DNS (Domain Name System) settings.
"They used a name not associated with Hush Communications and was able to get information from Network Solutions," Smith said. Using the information collected from Network Solutions customer service, Smith said the DNS information was changed to redirect users visiting the "hushmail.com" URL to a defaced Web site.
For a brief period, Hushmails domain was either unavailable or appeared defaced with an image of Hushmails logo with the following text: "The Secret Service is watching. - Agent Leth and Clown Jeet 3k Inc." Zone-H.org has archived a screenshot of the defacement.
Smith said Network Solutions promised to investigate and issue a statement on the breach, but at press time Friday, Hushmail had yet to receive official communication from the Herndon, Va.-based registrar.
Network Solutions spokeswoman Susan Wade confirmed that the breach occurred as a result of certain weaknesses in the registrars customer-service security measures but declined to provide specifics, citing customer privacy issues.
"Were seriously investigating the incident. We are aware that a hacker temporarily altered this customers [DNS records]. Our security team promptly rectified the situation," Wade told Ziff Davis Internet News.
She described the breach as an "isolated incident" and said Network Solutions would immediately institute "additional security measures to ensure it doesnt occur in the future."
"Weve brought everyone in and gone over the procedures, and weve implemented some additional ones. I cant go into details for obvious reasons, but we are taking this very, very seriously," Wade added.
In addition to supporting RCMPs investigation in Vancouver, Wade said a separate criminal investigation is being launched in the United States.
At Hushmails end, Smith said the episode has been frustrating. "Were still waiting for a statement from Network Solutions. We were told by an employee that the attacker was given the DNS information over the telephone, but theyve not sent anything official to us. I dont want to comment on what may or may not have happened at their end," Smith said.
For now, Hushmail is working to erase the negative perception of an e-mail security provider with a major server breach. "Initially, it was embarrassing but were pleased that the users and the media have been very sympathetic to what happened here. To nontechnical users, it will take some explaining, but its quite clear that this could have happened to anyone."
"The Internet as a whole is a notoriously nonsecure infrastructure. Were operating within that. This is a big worry for the entire Internet. Thats why phishing, pharming and social engineering attacks have become a big issue," Smith said.
Hushmail has been upfront about the hacking attack, publishing a daily log with updates for users.
"To the best of our knowledge, the DNS issues caused by the caching of the altered addresses should now have ceased. The correct addresses should now have propagated across the Internet, and all users should be able to access Hushmail," the latest entry says.
The company said there was no unauthorized access to any of the Hush servers. "Data managed by Hush was not compromised. During this period, e-mail sent to hushmail.com will not have been delivered," Hushmail said.
Rick Fleming, chief technology officer at Texas-based security outfit Digital Defense Inc., said the Hushmail nightmare points to a "major weakness" in the way domain name registrars authenticate requests for DNS changes.
"Well continue to see these types of social engineering attacks because its becoming easier to impersonate someone and collect information. There is definitely a weakness in the way the domain name registrars handle authentication. If they dont have a way to adequately identify who the domain owners are, these attacks will continue to happen," Fleming said.
"Whats to stop this from affecting a Yahoo or a Google? Nothing. The underlying flaw is the domain name systems work. Its an implied trusted relationship without any authentication or verification and that needs to be fixed," Fleming said.