Forged certificates common in HTTPS sessions

In Analyzing Forged SSL Certificates in the Wild [PDF] a paper authored by researchers at CMU and Facebook, we learn that "a small but significant percentage" of HTTPS connections are made using forged certificates generated by adware and malware. Disturbingly, some of this malware may be working by attacking anti-virus software and stealing its keys, and the authors also speculate that anti-virus authors may be giving their keys out to governments in order to allow police to carry out man-in-the-middle attacks.

The researchers used a technique to detect forged-cert connections that has post-Heartbleed applications, since it would allow sites to discover whether their visitors are being man-in-the-middled through keys stolen before Heartbleed was widely known. This all points to a larger problem with HTTPS, which has been under increased scrutiny since Heartbleed, but whose defects were well understood within the security community for a long time. I co-wrote this editorial for Nature with Ben Laurie in 2012 describing a system called "Certificate Transparency" that makes it easier to audit and remediate problems with SSL certificates, which Google is now adding to Chrome.

"One should be wary of professional attackers that might be capable of stealing the private key of the signing certificate from antivirus vendors, which may essentially allow them to spy on the antivirus users (since the antivirus root certificate would be trusted by the client)," the researchers explained. "Hypothetically, governments could also compel antivirus vendors to hand over their signing keys."

More troubling, of course, was the discovery of forged certificates issued by malware and adware programs for purposes of ferreting log-in credentials out of, and injecting banner ads into, encrypted Web traffic. Because the certificates were installed by software that made administer-level changes to the end-user computers, they likely generated few if any error warnings when they were presented.

Significant portion of HTTPS Web connections made by forged certificates [Dan Goodin/Ars Technica]