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'Iranian' attackers forge Google's Gmail credentials

Skype, Microsoft, Yahoo, Mozilla also targeted

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Who knew what, when?

Of the three browser providers, only Microsoft explicitly notified its users of the attack on the SSL system, albeit eight days after the bogus credentials had been issued. The notification came only after Comodo posted limited attack details here, here, and here.

According to Jacob Appelbaum, the Tor volunteer who independently discovered the compromise, disclosure was postponed until Wednesday so that all parties could have time to issue browser updates.

Companies often urge researchers to delay notification of attacks or vulnerability discoveries until there is a fix in place to prevent the disclosure of information that could enable additional people from exploiting the weaknesses. But to exploit these compromised certificates, attackers would already have to have access to their corresponding private keys. The decision by Google, Microsoft, Mozilla and Comodo to keep the world in the dark for eight days comes as a slap in the face to their users.

“The attackers had all they needed,” said Marsh Ray, a researcher and software developer at two-factor authentication service PhoneFactor. “Knowing which certificates have been compromised gives an immediate step people can take to secure their systems.”

None of the companies would explain why they waited so long to disclose the attack.

Attribution

Of course, any attacker sophisticated enough to be suspected as a state-sponsored actor is also capable of making the attacks appear to have come from Iran in an attempt to create a false trail. Abdulhayoglu acknowledged the possibility that the attackers weren't affiliated with the government of that country. But he pointed to recent news reports about attacks attributed to Iran and its neighbors on TOR, Facebook users in Tunisia and RSA as support the certification forgeries were state-sponsored campaigns.

“If I was a betting man, I would bet that they're in Iran,” he said of the attackers. “If you look at what's happening in the Middle East and if you look at what happened with Stuxnet last year, I think that was a wake up call to the Iranian government to understand the power of cyber warfare. Now they have attacked Tor. They're on a roll at the moment. They keep attacking.” ®

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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