AusCERT 2012: State-supported attacks undermine old ‘net trust models

Government attacks undermining certs.

Social networking operators like Facebook and Twitter need to consider themselves much more vulnerable to attacks – not because they are more vulnerable or more attractive to criminals than previously, but because of the entry of the state as an actor in security threats.

According to Phillip Hallam-Barker, vice-president and principal scientist of Comodo Group, “The introduction of state actors means you now need to be serious about security if you’re doing social networking: the Facebooks, the Twitters, need to consider themselves targets of attack, because what they do is of interest to states.

“Because of events like the Arab Spring, decisions about the Internet are now being made at the very highest levels of government,” he said – reflected not only in state-driven attacks on security, but also in the emergence of various international “cyber” treaties, which only exist because the highest levels of government consider the issue worth top-level attention.

Hallam-Barker told AusCERT delegates, it’s clear that state interest in the Internet is growing – and that includes the incidence of state-based attacks of various kinds.

Since June 2010’s Stuxnet, he said, attacks that appear to emanate from states have been occurring with increasing frequency.

It’s not that “the sky is falling”, he said – after all, the problem of professional criminals crafting attacks on the Internet is at least 15 years old. “It’s just that we have a new threat actor on the horizon, and we need to be aware of them. We don’t need to panic, but we do need to consider state actors as a risk.”

The two code-signing certificates used in Stuxnet, for example, suggest that the key for the code-signed certificates was compromised and allows the signing of device drivers.

Closer to home for Hallam-Barker, when a breach of one of Comodo’s resellers occurred, an attacker was able to request the issue of nine certificates, only one of which the company had been known to have been retrieved.

However, such incidents – and the more-notorious DigiNotar disaster of 2011 – has shaken the certificate industry out of the complacency that it developed, partly (he said) “because it has worked so well”.

“If the system had been breaking all the time over fifteen years, attacks like DigiNotar would never have succeeded.

Comodo is proposing a “trust broker” that can act as a curator of trust information (not only certificate information) to help provide more dependable information than a browser could collect for itself.

“Even though attacks are rare” when it is a state, “they are very consequential.” And while this means that the Internet’s trust infrastructure needs revision to cope with this, any new proposal “must meet all the requirements of the old”, as well as adding the ability to defend the trust infrastructure from state actors, he said.


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