Feeds

RSA says it fathered orphan credential in Firefox, Mac OS

Ultra-sensitive root cert no longer homeless

The Power of One eBook: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

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.

The Power of One eBook: Top reasons to choose HP BladeSystem

More from The Register

next story
BMW's ConnectedDrive falls over, bosses blame upgrade snafu
Traffic flows up 20% as motorway middle lanes miraculously unclog
LibreSSL RNG bug fix: What's all the forking fuss about, ask devs
Blow to bit-spitter 'tis but a flesh wound, claim team
Mozilla fixes CRITICAL security holes in Firefox, urges v31 upgrade
Misc memory hazards 'could be exploited' - and guess what, one's a Javascript vuln
Putin: Crack Tor for me and I'll make you a MILLIONAIRE
Russian Interior Ministry offers big pile o' roubles for busting pro-privacy browser
Manic malware Mayhem spreads through Linux, FreeBSD web servers
And how Google could cripple infection rate in a second
Don't look, Snowden: Security biz chases Tails with zero-day flaws alert
Exodus vows not to sell secrets of whistleblower's favorite OS
Roll out the welcome mat to hackers and crackers
Security chap pens guide to bug bounty programs that won't fail like Yahoo!'s
Researcher sat on critical IE bugs for THREE YEARS
VUPEN waited for Pwn2Own cash while IE's sandbox leaked
prev story

Whitepapers

Top three mobile application threats
Prevent sensitive data leakage over insecure channels or stolen mobile devices.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Top 8 considerations to enable and simplify mobility
In this whitepaper learn how to successfully add mobile capabilities simply and cost effectively.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
The Essential Guide to IT Transformation
ServiceNow discusses three IT transformations that can help CIO's automate IT services to transform IT and the enterprise.