Information about Reported Web Security Vulnerability

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August 2002

There has been a good deal of discussion and speculation recently about a reported security vulnerability involving how Internet Explorer identifies secure web sites. The Microsoft Security Response Center has investigated the report and we'd like to provide information about the issue and our plans for addressing it.

The report discusses a problem in the way Internet Explorer establishes secure web sessions via the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) protocol. SSL provides a number of security features, but of particular interest in this case is its ability to verify that a web site is indeed the site it purports to be. A flaw in the SSL implementation could enable an attacker to create a web site that bypasses this protection, and masquerades as a different web site – one that the user might trust and provide with personal information such as credit card numbers.

The flaw could enable an attacker who has been issued a valid SSL digital certificate to create a seemingly valid additional certificate that purports to belong to a different web site. When a user visited the site, the attacker could present the second certificate in an attempt to convince the user that he or she was actually at the site it claimed.

While Microsoft has confirmed that the flaw does exist, it's important to note that actually exploiting it would be difficult, for several reasons:

  • The attack scenario is narrow. If a user arrived at the attacker's web site in the belief that it was actually a different, legitimate site, the flaw could allow the attacker to bolster this belief. But it provides no way to make the user actually arrive at the attacker's site, let alone in the belief that it is a different site. Doing this would likely require that the attacker be able to modify the Internet infrastructure that the user transited, via a technique such as DNS cache poisoning. However, such techniques are difficult, temporary, and generally require favorable network topology.

  • The identity of the attacker could easily be determined. To exploit the vulnerability, the attacker would require a valid SSL digital certificate, issued by a trusted Certificate Authority. However, most commercial Certificate Authorities require substantial proof of identity before issuing such a certificate, thereby making it possible for law enforcement authorities to determine who the attacker was. (Information on verifying certificates can be found here).

  • The user would always have the ability to determine the truth. Anytime an SSL session has been established, an icon shaped like a lock is present in the lower right corner of the screen. By double-clicking on the icon, the user can see information about the site's digital certificate, including the identity of the issuer. This would clearly show that, in contrast to the norm, this one hadn't been directly issued by a commercial Certificate Authority.

Despite the many challenges associated with exploiting the flaw, there is indeed a flaw here and Microsoft has developed a patch that will eliminate it. For further information and to download the patch, please see Microsoft Security Bulletin MS02-050: Certificate Validation Flaw Could Enable Identity Spoofing (329115).

We regret any anxiety that customers may have experienced regarding this issue. Clearly, it would have been best if a balanced assessment of the issue and its risk had been available from the start. However, the report, which neglected to discuss any of the challenges associated with actually exploiting the vulnerability, was made public without any advance warning to Microsoft. Responsible security researchers have the safety of users in mind and work with vendors to ensure that the information published about potential vulnerabilities is balanced and, above all, correct. Had this been done in this case, all users' interests would have been better served.