[ISN] E-commerce crypto code cracked

From: mea culpa (jerichoat_private)
Date: Sat Jun 27 1998 - 00:00:55 PDT

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    E-commerce crypto code cracked 
    By Randy Weston
    Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM
    June 26, 1998, 1:05 p.m. PT 
    update Secure Internet commerce may not be so secure, at least in the sterile
    environment of Bell Labs. 
    A computer scientist at Lucent Technologies' research arm in Murray Hill, New
    Jersey, this week discovered a way to crack encryption code from secured Web
    sites. Web server software firms have been scrambling this week to get a
    software patch to customers to plug the security hole.
    In theory, the discovery means a hacker could access a Web shopper's credit
    card number, address, and other vital information as the user conducts a
    "The mechanism used is to send particular messages to a server and observe the
    error messages," Daniel Bleichenbacher, the scientist who uncovered the
    security breach told CNET NEWS.COM. "This gives me a bit of information of
    what a decrypted message looks like. Whenever I don't get an error message
    back, I also have some information on what the secret message looks like." 
    Bleichenbacher's department was researching ways of cracking various security
    protocols. He said he chose the Public Key Cryptography Standard (PKCS) No. 1
    protocol because it is so widely used in electronic commerce. He explained
    that the method means someone needs to repeatedly send about a million
    carefully constructed messages to a target server and that the hacker would
    need a special connection to screen out any other Internet traffic. 
    The scientist also stressed that the sheer volume of messages required should
    alert a network administrator to trouble. 
    "If they have a log and a batch log, they could see if an attack took place or
    not," Bleichenbacher added. "You can detect when an attack takes place." 
    The news is still disheartening to the electronic commerce industry, which is
    fighting a battle to persuade the public and corporate users that the Internet
    is a safe place to conduct business. 
    Commerce software firms quickly went into a flurry of activity, writing and
    distributing a software patch that would fix the problem. The companies
    issuing the patch include Netscape Communications, Microsoft, and Security
    Dynamics Technologies' RSA Data Security unit, whose SSL (Secure Sockets
    Layer) technology is a key element in online commerce. 
    SSL is a key protocol for secure Internet commerce and communications.
    Virtually all Internet credit card transactions today use SSL. However, this
    security weakness is in specific implementations of SSL that use RSA's PKCS 1
    tools, not in the standard itself. 
    "No updates are required for Internet client software," noted a Microsoft
    security bulletin, which "strongly recommends" that customers using SSL on
    their Internet servers install the patch. Netscape did likewise and said Bank
    of America, its own Netcenter site, and other leading financial sites have
    already installed the patch. 
    "The problems and updates have been rolled out before any attack was ever
    mounted," said Brian Byun, Netscape's group product manager for security
    products. "We take security issues very seriously, even if theoretical, as
    this one was." Netscape termed the weakness "nearly impossible to exploit." 
    "The patch, like all great things in life, is amazingly simple," said Scott
    Schnell, vice president of marketing at RSA. "The way a server vendor solves
    the problem is if someone sends an improperly formulated message and you patch
    the mechanism so it always returns the same message, there is no way for the
    hacker to get the session keys." 
    Schnell explained that the error messages are implemented by the programmers
    to track problems during the development and testing phases. He added that so
    far the hacking has been isolated to a laboratory environment and has not
    taken place in the real world. 
    "Discoveries like this are inevitable, and we have built them into being part
    of our business," Schnell noted. "If we didn't, we wouldn't have been ready
    for such an event as this. We are confident that there will be other
    discoveries, and it is not if and when but how well people handle the problem
    when it is discovered." 
    A complete scenario of the breach can be found on RSA's Web site. 
    "The vulnerability affects interactive key establishment protocols that use
    the PKCS 1, including SSL," RSA executives said in a statement. "The
    vulnerability does not apply to PKCS 1-based secure messaging protocols, such
    as SET (Secure Electronic Transactions) and S/MIME (Secure Multipurpose
    Internet Mail Extension) because they are not susceptible to or already
    implement mechanisms preventing this potential vulnerability." 
    Bleichenbacher said he will continue his work to see if other holes can be
    found in systems and other types of protocols. 
    In the network security field, researchers often publicize weaknesses to
    motivate vendors to update their products and install the protection. This
    particular vulnerability was in Web servers, meaning that individuals using
    Web browsers don't need to do anything. Also, it means the weakness will be
    easier to fix than if every browser had to be updated. 
    However, users likewise won't know for sure if a Web site has fixed the
    security hole. 
    Reuters contributed to this report. 
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