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Google warns users that bogus SSL certificates have been issued

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July 9, 2014

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Google is warning its users that bogus SSL certificates have been issued by India's National Information Centre (NIC).

Those certificates can be used by servers to masquerade as legitimate Google websites when they're not, and then eavesdrop or tamper with users' encrypted communications.

The internet connection would appear to be secure when in fact it's not. According Google's security team, it noticed unauthorized certificates for several Google domains that popped up last Wednesday and then traced them back to India's NIC.

What's troubling about this is that the issuer holds several intermediate CA certificates that are trusted by the Indian Controller of Certifying Authorities (India CCA) and also some Western companies.

"The India CCA certificates are included in the Microsoft Root Store and thus are trusted by the vast majority of programs running on Windows, including Internet Explorer and Chrome. Firefox is not affected because it uses its own root store that doesn't include these certificates," said Google security engineer Adam Langley.

"However, we are not aware of any other root stores that include the India CCA certificates, thus Chrome on other operating systems, Chrome OS, Android, iOS and OS X are not affected. Additionally, Chrome on Windows would not have accepted the certificates for Google sites because of public-key pinning, although mis-issued certificates for other sites may exist," Langley added.

Google engineers alerted both Indian agencies and Microsoft about the security issue, and the bogus certificates were revoked a day later. In the meantime, Google has revoked all the certificates using Chrome's CRL Set function and says its products are in the clear.

It also appears that Microsoft users are now covered. "We are aware of the mis-issued third-party certificates and we have not detected any of the certificates being issued against Microsoft domains," a Microsoft spokesperson said.

"We are taking all the necessary steps to help ensure that our customers remain protected at all times."

The India CCA is now running a full investigation to determine exactly what happened to lead to the certificates being issued, but it's not the first time that certification authorities have either been tricked into issuing bogus certificates, or hacked in a manner to achieve that goal.

In other internet security news

According to military sources from South Korea, North Korea has doubled the number of government hackers it employs since mid-2012.

The allegations claim that no less than 5900 elite personnel were employed in Pyongyang's hacking unit, up from 3000 at the beginning of 2012.

The said hackers had their crosshairs firmly fixed on Seoul but operate from offices in China, the source told the Yonhap News Agency.

"North Korea operates a hacking unit under its General Bureau of Reconnaissance, which is home to some 1200 professional hackers," the source told the agency.

The hackers developed and foisted malware against South Korean banks, media websites, thegovernment and defence agencies during the employment surge and were fended off by a 900 strong South Korean security blue team.

Last year, South Korea planned to train 5000 security people to combat attacks from the North but it was unclear if these personnel have yet been trained for the task.

Pyongyang denied launching attacks and accused Seoul of fueling diplomatic tensions. The source said that the North had more "elite" hackers than the United States with 900, and Japan housing just 90.

Pyongyang trained 100 hackers a year through Mirim and Moranbong universities, said to be run by the Government's Operations Department that spearheaded cyber war efforts.

Hackers were divided up into 600 strong brigades taught by Russian professors from the Frunze Military Academy, North Korean defector Jang Se-yul told the popular Seoul Chosun newspaper in 2011.

Intriguingly, the same source said in prior years that a lack of local facilities meant hackers had to be taught in faraway locations.

Last year, North Korea was blamed for distributed denial of service attacks against government agencies including the Presidential Blue House and media companies.

It followed much larger attacks in March that year infecting banks, insurance firms and broadcasters with malware that permanently crashed computers.

In other internet security news

In a post NSA-Edward Snowden era, a team of security experts have teamed up to create a convenient internet messenger (IM) client designed especially for whistleblowers. And yes, Snowden himself would be proud.

The?'invisible.im project' promises an instant messenger app that leaves no trace. The team behind the project include Metasploit Founder HD Moore and noted expert The Grugq.

To be sure, invisible.im?is primarily geared towards serving the stringent anonymity needs of whistleblowers, as the project website explains.

The invisible.im project was established to develop an instant messenger and file transfer application that leaves virtually no evidence of conversations or file transfers having occurred.

The primary use case for this technology is for whistleblowers and media sources who wish to remain anonymous when communicating with the press or other organizations.

Still in its early development stage, the project is looking for developers to port its concept to various platforms-- Windows, OS X and Linux.

It also wants software and security experts capable of hooking the software into the darknet, specifically the i2p anonymisation network. It is also very keen to work with developers who are knowledgable about Tor.

SecureDrop and StrongBox are a good approach for large media organization such as the New York Times but are complex and require secure supporting infrastructure. The?invisible.im?project aims to plug that gap with technology an instant message and file transfer client that leaves as small a metadata trail as possible.

TorChat offers anonymity but still requires a registered IM account with an IM provider like AOL, Yahoo or Microsoft that inevitably leaks metadata sooner or later.

The?invisible.im project?openly acknowledges that any system it develops is never going to offer absolute anonymity under all circumstances. And that's fair.

"If a source is already the subject of targeted surveillance, invisible.im cannot facilitate secure, anonymous chats," it concedes.

More details on the scope of the project and its general design principals can be found in the FAQ section on the?invisible.im?website.

In other internet security news

It's reported this morning that hackers have cooked up a malicious Android app that bundles a whole slew of banking fraud mishaps into a single strain of mobile malware.

The HijackRAT is a banking trojan that packs together new and previously unseen functions, according to internet security firm FireEye.

The mobile app combines private data theft, banking credentials theft, spoofing and remote access into a single malicious app.

So far, Android malware has had only one of these capabilities built-in. Under the control of hackers, the app steals SMS messages and contact lists and can send SMSs as well.

The malware can also initiate malicious app updates and scan for banking apps installed on the smartphone and replace them with fake utilities.

The malware also attempts to disable any mobile security software that might be installed on a compromised device.

The current version of the malicious app scans for eight Korean banking apps and replaces them with fake ones.

"While it's limited to just eight Korean banks right now, the cyber criminal could easily add it in the functionality for any other bank with just 20 to 30 minutes of work," according to FireEye.

Overall, unfinished functionality built into the HijackRAT malware might eventually facilitate bank hijacking attacks, according to an analysis of the mobile malware by FireEye.

Such malicious attacks would be possible because of the combination of personal information taken from compromised devices combined with the introduction of counterfeit banking apps on Android smartphones and tablets.

Although the HijackRAT malware disguises itself as a “Google Service Framework" it obviously has no affiliation with the Google Play Store.

In other internet security news

Russia isn't just interested in the Ukraine and Crimea anymore, it's now setting its goals on U.S. interests as well, although this time it's using the internet to achieve its mischief.

An internet security firm reported this week that Russian hackers have launched unprecedented, highly-sophisticated cyber attacks on American oil and gas companies.

Nicknamed 'Energetic Bear', the cyber operation is the latest example of an ongoing war between American and British cyber spies on one side, and intellectual property-stealing hackers in Russia on the other. China could even be on this as well.

The report by Symantec described how hackers have managed to sneak malware into computers at power plants, energy grid operators, gas pipeline companies and industrial equipment makers.

For now, most of the targets were in the United States and Spain, but the rest were across Europe.

The malware was used to steal documents, usernames and passwords. In the best-case scenario, the hackers only took valuable and sensitive information. At worst, they gained the ability to hijack the controls and even sabotage the U.S.' energy supply.

Another security company, Crowdstrike, first spotted the Energetic Bear operation in 2012. Crowdstrike thinks the hackers at Energetic Bear work for or alongside Russian government intelligence services at the behest of state-owned gas enterprises, including Gazpro and Rosneft.

To no big surprise, neither the Russian embassy, nor those energy companies, responded to requests for comment.

Why should you care? If a rogue nation breaks into oil and natural gas refineries at Exxon-Mobil or BP and figures out where they've discovered vast oil or natural gas reserves, it could beat them to the punch and start drilling first. That's just one reason of a long list of others, however.

If that rogue nation manages to steal blueprints to the power grid or key pipelines, it could disable them to cause economic chaos, or worse, shut everything down during a war.

"The Russians are engaged in very aggressive economic and political espionage right now," Crowdstrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch said.

Security researchers said Energetic Bear is notable for its military precision and planning. And Energetic Bear hackers aren't limited to just attacking the energy sector either.

Their malware has also been spotted inside the networks of European and U.S. defense contractors and health care providers, as well as manufacturers, construction companies and universities doing research in the field of nuclear energy.

"So far, we haven't seen anything of this scale with industrial control systems," said Kevin Haley, Symantec's director of security.

In other internet security news

'You need to encrypt all your stored passwords'. That's the simple message coming from Australia's privacy commissioner, at the conclusion of his long investigation of a gigantic data breach of the Cupid Media dating operation last year.

Among the 42 million customers whose data was exposed in the breach of the Queensland-headquartered company were 245,000 Australians, commissioner Timothy Pilgrim added.

The most serious security breach was that the compromised passwords were not hashed or otherwise encrypted before the data breach. Instead they were stored insecurely, in plain text, the commissioner's report states.

“The Commissioner therefore found Cupid's storage of passwords in plain text to be a major failure to take reasonable security steps,” the report warned.

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