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RSA says it fathered orphan credential in Firefox, Mac OS

Ultra-sensitive root cert no longer homeless

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Updated Digital certificate authority RSA Security on Tuesday acknowledged it issued a root authentication credential shipped in in the Mac operating system and Mozilla web browsers and email programs, ending four days of confusion about who controlled the ultra-sensitive document.

The "RSA Security 1024 V3" certificate is a master credential that can be used to digitally validate the certificates of an unlimited number of websites and email servers. It's one of several dozen "certificate authority certificates" that by default are shipped with Mac OS X and Mozilla's Firefox browser and Thunderbird email client. It's valid from 2001 to 2026.

But until a few minutes after this article was first published, no one knew who issued or controlled the credential. Both RSA and competing certificate issuer VeriSign previously said it wasn't theirs. Further compounding the mystery, recent audits of certificate authority credentials made no reference of it, according to this bug report posted to Mozilla's website for developers and a follow-up post on Google Groups.

Although now solved, the case of the orphaned certificate casts doubt on the security of some of the web's most important documents.

Owners of the certificate authority certificates act as locksmiths who can at will produce the digital keys used to prove a website or email server really is operated by the bank, retailer, or other trusted organization claiming ownership. The inclusion of a mysterious CA certificate into two separate organizations caused many to question whether it was the result of a clerical error or the deliberate act of a criminal.

"Either way, it's a very concerning situation," security researcher Moxie Marlinspike said before RSA stepped forward as the issuer. "Either an unknown attacker somewhere in the world has had unlimited access to SSL traffic for an unknown amount of time, or the people who we have entrusted with this critical piece of web infrastructure can't even keep track of their own certificates."

In a statement, Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla's director of Firefox development, played down the significance of the discovery, saying all certificates are vetted according to this policy. But he also tacitly admitted Mozilla didn't know who controlled it.

"The RSA key here is one that's been around for some time, though, and whose corporate ownership has likely changed since its inclusion," he said. "What we know now is that neither RSA (maintainers of the similarly-named 2048 bit key) nor VeriSign (maintainers of the RSA Data Security Inc. key) currently use the root or get audits against it, which is why we're removing it."

Shortly after this article was published, a Mozilla spokeswoman said the organization later learned that the root certificate was indeed issued by RSA.

Members of Apple's public relations team didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

While the mystery remained unsolved, Firefox users on Google Groups proposed removing the RSA certificate from the NSS, or network security services, library that ships with Firefox. With the origin of the certificate now known, that revocation may not be as urgent.

But the episode makes you wonder: How many other certificates with murky origins are floating around in browsers, email clients and operating systems? And beyond that, how many of these certificates are really needed? Users should call for an accounting the CA certificates included in their software. And RSA should explain how it lost track of such a sensitive document. ®

This article was rewritten throughout to report that, after publication, RSA stepped forward as the issuer the root certificate.

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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