As a relative newcomer to the journalism business, I find myself amazed at the lack of correlation between the importance of a news story and the attention it receives. Sexy while relatively insignificant stories often top the headlines for days, but blink and you can miss the really critical news.
Case in point: On Jan. 29 and 30, impostors tricked commercial certificate authority VeriSign into issuing them digital certificates in Microsofts name. VeriSign apparently did not catch its error for several weeks, and it did not inform the public of the problem until March 22. Though advisories issued by both VeriSign and Microsoft were covered in the press, they garnered very little attention, and it seems that the vast majority of affected users are completely unaware of the incident.
That is an enormous problem. The security of Microsofts online software-distribution model and network functionality relies heavily on the integrity of digital certificates. Microsofts digital signature is intended to act as proof that any given piece of executable code originated in Redmond and has not been altered or tampered with. In short, it was a sort of guarantee that software is safe and free of viruses or back doors.
As of Jan. 29, that guarantee is no longer absolute. Anyone in possession of a copy of a stolen certificate can use it to sign any file they see fit—virus-infected Word documents, Back-Orifice-laden applications, malicious ActiveX controls—and as far as the average user is concerned, it has Microsofts stamp of approval.
The stolen certificates can be detected. By examining a signature, the end user can determine the date on which the signing certificate was issued. And according to VeriSign and Microsoft, no legitimate certificates were issued to Microsoft Jan. 29 or 30. Unfortunately, only a tiny minority of users are savvy and conscientious enough to check signatures. Knowing that, Microsoft has released a patch to detect the bad certificates automatically (if youre a windows user, go get it now at www.microsoft.com/downloads/release.asp?ReleaseID=28888). The Windows systems administrator community is notoriously bad at staying up to date with patches, however, and the average Windows 95 user is likely to be no better.
Now, I certainly understand why this story did not make more waves—mention the words “digital certificate” and most peoples eyes immediately glaze over. The fact remains, though, that the incident has created a major threat to every single Windows user. Moreover, its basically up to users to defend themselves, which means they need to be aware of the issue.
Historically, the online community has waited for the second or third monumental crisis (à la Melissa and the Love Bug) before taking a security problem seriously. If we want to improve our record, heres a chance to start.