Certificate hacker probably paid by Iran, say victimized firms

Comodo's CEO sees even stronger links between hacker and Iran in recent attack

The CEO of a certificate-issuing company that was hacked in March is even more certain now that a wave of attacks against similar firms is backed by the Iranian government.

"I think even more so now than before," said Melih Abdulhayoglu, the CEO and founder of Comodo, a Jersey City, N.J.-based security company that is also one of hundreds of certificate authorities, or CAs, allowed to issue SSL (secure socket layer) certificates.

The certificates authenticate the identity of websites, to show, say, that Google is really Google.

Last March, after Comodo confirmed that its network had been breached and nine certificates stolen -- including ones for Google, Microsoft and Yahoo -- Abdulhayoglu said he believed the attacks came were backed by the Iranian government.

"We believe these are politically motivated, state driven/funded attacks," Abdulhayoglu said at the time.

The newest attack, conducted against DigiNotar, a Dutch CA, only strengthened Abdulhayoglu's belief that Iranian authorities were involved.

"We just witnessed the biggest man-in-the-middle attack in history," said Abdulhayoglu, talking about the fallout after one or more hackers broke into a Dutch CA's network in June, then stole more than 500 digital certificates.

DigiNotar, based in the Netherlands but owned by U.S. firm Vasco, admitted on Aug. 30 that its servers were compromised weeks earlier by unknown attackers.

A fraudulently-acquired certificate for google.com was used to spy on 300,000 Iranians, according to a forensics firm hired by the Dutch government to investigate the intrusion of DigiNotar's servers. Because Google has warned Iranians to reset their Gmail passwords, the assumption is that the fake certificate was used to monitor email within Iran.

Someone who calls himself "Comodohacker" and says he is a 21-year-old Iranian, has claimed credit for both the attack against DigiNotar and the earlier breach of Comodo. He has also declared he hacked four other CAs, including GlobalSign.

In statements he has published on the Web and in an email exchange to the New York Times, Comodohacker has asserted he acted alone. However, he has acknowledged he "shared some cert[ificate]s with some people in Iran."

"Man-in-the-middle" attacks using fraudulent certificates would allow others -- either individual hackers or a government -- to secretly intercept all communications to a site, and harvest usernames and passwords for email or online chat. Those accounts could then be accessed to read messages.

To conduct such attacks, the criminals must plant malware on individual computers or compromise the domain name system (DNS) servers at one or more Internet service providers (ISPs), or more likely, according to experts, have the assistance of ISPs or the cooperation of a government that controls the ISPs within its borders, as does Iran.

Abdulhayoglu said one of the last two was most likely. "The hackers need a connection to someone [within Iran] to do what they did," he said.

Unlike DigiNotar, which let someone spy on hundreds of thousand of users for about a month, the Comodo certificates were used only briefly and from just one ISP. The only publicly-reported spying attempt was on users of Yahoo Mail.

Abdulhayoglu said Comodohacker's claims shouldn't be taken at face value. "There could be multiple people using the [Pastebin] account, not just one," he said, referring to the website where Comodohacker posted statements claiming responsibility for the Comodo and DigiNotar attacks.

Last week, the CTO of another CA that has been attacked said other claims by Comodohacker were suspect.

"The attacker or attackers is most likely not Iranian nor a student nor 21 years old. Evidence we have highly suggests that," said Eddy Nigg, of StartCom, an Israeli CA whose network was attacked in June. The hacker or hackers were not able to acquire any digital certificates from StartCom.

Although Comodohacker has denied he was paid for his work, neither Abdulhayoglu or Nigg believed him.

Abdulhayoglu said while Comodohacker may not be state-sponsored in that he is probably not employed by the Iranian government, he believes the Iranians are paying him or others for the certificates they steal.

Nigg is thinking along the same lines.

"I believe the hacker(s) are not directly related to Iran in any way, but simply criminals getting paid for every targeted certificate," Nigg said last week in an email.

According to the New York Times, the email replies it received from Comodohacker have been traced to a system in Russia, a hotbed of hacking. Although Comodohacker could be routing his messages through a compromised Russian computer, the evidence could also mean he is not, as he claims, Iranian.

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.

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