An SSL Vulnerability for the Masses

Those of you following the news have probably heard about a recent SSL

authentication bug [1] in Internet Explorer discovered by Mike Benham.

This would be an excellent time to laugh at yet another Windows bug if

it weren't for the fact that this same bug is found in Konqueror, the

KDE browser. To understand the bug, let's take a look at how a browser

correctly authenticates a Web server.

The Web server has a public and private key installed that it uses for

encryption and authentication. When the browser connects, the Web server

presents it's public key. Certificate Authority -- an overpaid entity

such as VeriSign that says, "Yes, this key belongs to this site" --

signs this public key. (For more details about what SSL does and does

not protect, even when implemented properly, see [2].)

The browser has a hard-coded list of acceptable Certificate Authorities.

It will check the CA signature that is part of the server's certificate

and verify that it is signed by one of these trusted CAs. If it is not,

either the connection is dropped or you are assaulted with a series of

warning dialogs.

Some site certificates are not signed directly by a CA key, but by

intermediary CAs as part of a certificate chain. For example if you have

a trusted Certificate Authority, "Foo Security, Inc.", and that CA has

signed an Intermediate Certificate Authority for "Bar None Security",

then Bar is allowed to sign server certificates such as

This certificate chain would look something like this:

Certificate Type Trust Level server cert Signed by Bar None Security

Bar None Security: Intermediate CA Signed by Foo Security, Inc

Foo Security, Inc: Root CA Implicit trust - installed in


The problem with IE and Konqueror is that they simply verified that cert

Foo signed cert Bar, which signed They did not verify

that Bar was an Intermediate Certificate Authority. What does this mean?

If I had a valid certificate for some domain, say, I

can use it to sign any server certificate I want. For example: server cert Signed by server cert Signed by Foo Security, Inc

Foo Security, Inc: Root CA Implicit trust - installed in


So, what to do? Well Konqueror had a fix available in an hour and a

half. If you're using the CVS version of KDE, recompile Konqueror and

you'll be all set. The fix is part of KDE 3.0.3, which is being released

pretty soon. Most Linux distributions either have or are preparing

updated packages.

If you're using IE then you have a longer wait in front of you.

Microsoft says that the bug is in the OS, not in IE. The certificate

checking code is not part of the CryptoAPI, a cryptography library used

by several other Microsoft programs, so the bug only affects IE. Why the

code isn't in the CrytoAPI, I can't imagine. And why the broken code -

which is in the OS, not in IE -- would only affect IE, I'll leave to

your imagination. But expect to wait a while. Microsoft doesn't see

broken SSL as a pressing security problem.

To read more about this vulnerability, see Benham's original BugTraq

post [1]. He also provides a proof-of-concept tool, sslsniff [3] that

can transparently perform man-in-the-middle attacks on SSL sessions.

This tool differs from the webmitm [4] tool that is part of Dug Song's

dsniff package, which uses a randomly generated SSL certificate and thus

sets off many warning dialog boxes on most browsers.






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