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Boffin outs CIA, NASA, and Microsoft

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New research has uncovered flaws in the encryption certificates used to protect the websites of hospitals, banks, and even top-secret government spy agencies, raising questions about whether they are complying with regulations requiring them to adequately safeguard their online visitors.

Rodney Thayer, a security researcher with Canola & Jones, spent a day and a half scoping out weak websites using nothing more than a handful of search queries typed into Google. What he found were 31 sites maintained by the US Central Intelligence Agency, NASA, the World Bank, and Fortune 500 companies that used flawed security sockets layer certificates for authentication.

Among the scofflaws was a page for partner accounts offered by technology website CNET and this application page offered by Gartner, a company that dispenses advice on a host of security issues. Other organizations using defective certificates included the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team, Advanced Micro Devices, and Microsoft.

SSL was developed in the mid 1990s as a measure to prevent websites that transact commerce or other sensitive business from being spoofed by attackers intent on defrauding visitors. It uses cryptographic certificates that mathematically validate that the site is operated by a particularly company or organization. Few webmasters give proper time to implementing and maintaining SSL certificates, however, an oversight that reduces their effectiveness.

SSL "suffers from the fact that it's one of the exotic technologies that we all had to get working for the whole internet .com thing to happen," Thayer says. "Everybody basically for the last five years at least who's done this was just following a check list that got handed, so nobody's really been thinking of this as a security issue."

In many cases, the certs identified by Thayer have expired. In other cases, they use an insecure version known as SSL 2, an obsolete algorithm known as 40-bit RC-4 or certificates that are misconfigured. The findings raise questions about whether the websites that use them are complying with regulations that govern medical providers, federal agencies, and merchants who accept credit cards.

The Federal Information Processing Standards (pdf), for example, require federal agencies to use valid SSL certificates for webpages that accept employee logins. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (pdf) and Payment Card Industry rules place similar requirements on health care providers and online merchants respectively.

In some cases, the dysfunctional forms accompany web addresses that webmasters long abandoned. This may seem innocuous, but Thayer warns they can erode security by training users to ignore security warnings automatically generated by web browsers.

Other organizations included in Thayer's findings include Intuit, Google, Mercedes Benz, and Adobe. ®

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