Microsoft flips 'kill switch' on all DigiNotar certificates

Permanently blocks all SSL certificates issued by Dutch company hacked in June

Microsoft today updated Windows to permanently block all digital certificates issued by a Dutch company that was hacked months ago.

The update -- the second for Windows Vista and Windows 7, but the first for the decade-old Windows XP -- moves all DigiNotar SSL (secure socket layer) certificates to Windows' block list, dubbed the Untrusted Certificate Store. Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) uses that list to bar the browser from reaching sites secured with dubious certificates.

Windows XP users will see this update starting today that blocks all SSL certificates issued by DigiNotar.

DigiNotar, a certificate authority (CA) based in the Netherlands, has admitted that its servers were compromised in mid-July. A report made public Monday by a digital forensics firm said that hackers had acquired 531 certificates, including many used by the Dutch government, and that DigiNotar was unaware of the intrusion for approximately a month.

In that forensics report, Fox-IT said that hackers controlled DigiNotar's servers starting June 17, and that during a month-long stretch in July and August, hackers spied on 300,000 Iranians' Gmail accounts.

SSL certificates are used by websites and browsers to identify a site as legitimate; illegally-obtained certificates can be abused to disguise unauthorized domains using "man-in-the-middle" attacks.

The Windows update will be automatically downloaded and installed to machines that have Windows Update's Automatic Update enabled, Microsoft said in a security advisory.

Microsoft's Dutch customers, however, won't see the update for another week.

"At the explicit request of the Dutch government, Microsoft will delay deployment of this update in the Netherlands for one week to give the government time to replace certificates," Dave Forstrom, a director in Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing group, said in a blog post today. "Dutch customers who wish to install the update can do so by manually visiting Windows Update or following the instructions available at www.microsoft.nl once the security update is released worldwide."

The delay for the Dutch was expected. On Monday, the Netherlands' Ministers of Interior and Security and Justice told parliament that Microsoft would issue an update to block all DigiNotar certificates, and that the update would not be immediately pushed to Dutch Windows users.

Google and Mozilla have already updated their browsers to block all DigiNotar certificates. The former shipped a new version of Chrome on Saturday, while the latter updated Firefox 6 and Firefox 3.6 today.

Mozilla has been especially vocal about its disgust with DigiNotar, and has said that the ban of certificates issued by the company is permanent.

"This is not a temporary suspension, it is a complete removal from our trusted root program," said Johnathan Nightingale, director of Firefox engineering, in a blog post last Friday. "Complete revocation of trust is a decision we treat with careful consideration, and employ as a last resort."

Other security experts have said that the bans by Google, Mozilla and now Microsoft amount to a "death sentence" for DigiNotar and its business.

Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Security, concurred. "Game over, man," he said today.

Apple has been mum during the DigiNotar episode: Its Safari browser relies on a block list in Mac OS X, so -- like Microsoft -- Apple must update its operating system to protect users.

Last March, when a similar attack targeted Comodo, Apple took a month before blocking the stolen certificates, or three weeks longer than Microsoft.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more articles by Gregg Keizer.

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