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RSA has offered to replace its customers' security tokens following confirmation that an important customer had come under attack, in an incident made possible by an earlier high-profile hack against RSA's systems.

SecurID, RSA's two-factor authentication system, uses a token which generates a pseudo-random six-digit passcode every minute or so. The technology is widely used alongside standard user name and passwords as a means to adds extra security to remote access by many organisations and service provider.

The value of a passcode depends on the so-called seed numbers.

RSA admitted it had come under attack in March and said that this might affect its SecureID systems without saying what was taken. Experts have speculated that hackers may have made off with a portion of its seed number database but this remains unconfirmed.

From that point it would only be necessary to match serial numbers of tokens to portions of the stolen database to circumvent the protection offered by SecurID tokens.

At the time of the original breach, RSA attempted to reassure customers by saying that "we are confident that the information extracted does not enable a successful direct attack on any of our RSA SecurID customers".

This assurance has been undermined by the confirmation by defence contractor LockHeed Martin that it had come under attack from an assault based on information gleaned from the earlier RSA SecurID token breach. Lockheed Martin blocked the attack but the concern remains that other organisation might not fare so well.

Unconfirmed reports suggest two other defence contractors - L3 Communications and Northrup Grumman - have been obliged to suspend remote access after they also came under attack from assaults leveraging the original RSA hack.

The suspicion is that these contractors have been targeted for industrial-espionage by the highly-skilled hackers, possibly in the employ of national government or intelligence agencies.

In response to Lockheed's confirmation of a hack attack against its systems, RSA has extended an offer to replace SecurID tokens at no cost to its customers, providing they have "concentrated user bases typically focused on protecting intellectual property and corporate networks".

It's not immediately clear what proportion of RSA's customer base is covered by the replacement offer. Worse still, it's unclear if the new tokens might one day be subject to the same problem as the old tokens clearly face.

There's more to be said on this. One thing for sure is that RSA's original line for withholding technical details of the original attack because this would help the bad guys is now toast. ®

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

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