Extremely sophisticated hackers, possibly from the Iranian government or another state-sponsored actor, broke into the servers of a web authentication authority and counterfeited certificates for Google mail and six other sensitive addresses, the CEO of Comodo said.
The March 15 intrusion came from IP addresses belonging to an Iranian internet service provider, and one of the purloined certificates was tested from the same country, said Melih Abdulhayoglu, whose company is the certificate authority used to validate the bogus web credentials. Other web addresses that were targeted included www.google.com, login.yahoo.com, login.skype.com, addons.mozilla.com, and Microsoft's login.live.com.
“All the IPs were from Iran, and this was critically executed,” Abdulhayoglu told The Register. “It wasn't like a brute-force attack like you would see from a typical cyber criminal. It was a very well orchestrated, very clinical attack, and the attacker knew exactly what they needed to do and how fast they had to operate.”
The intrusion on what amounts to a reseller of Comodo certificates allowed the attackers to obtain the encryption keys needed to create SSL, or secure socket layer, certificates that web browsers and email programs use to mathematically determine that the server they're connected to belongs to its true owner, rather than an imposter. The attack came around the same time that unknown parties compromised the security of RSA's SecurID , the matchbook-sized tokens that 40 million people use to secure logins to sensitive and corporate networks.
“The security companies who are providing authentication are being directly attacked by the government,” Abdulhayoglu said. “All of us provide some sort of security, some sort of authentication, to people and we're being attacked. The reason is these people (the attackers) want to have access to communication.”
Comodo revoked the forged certificates almost immediately after discovering they had been issued. That would cause most modern browsers to warn of a forgery when encountering them. But older browsers don't provide such warnings, and the validation check can be turned off, both of which create the possibility that people visiting the targeted websites on unsecured networks could have been duped by the counterfeited certificates.
Google very quietly blacklisted “a small number of certificates”  two days after the attack, and Mozilla  and Microsoft  took similar action for Firefox or Internet Explorer until Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.
Abdulhayoglu declined to identify the reseller, which in SSL parlance is known as a registration authority, except to say that it was based in southern Europe. Comodo still doesn't know how the RA was breached but investigators have determined that other non-Comodo accounts held by the partner were also compromised around the same time.
Abdulhayoglu said he could neither confirm nor deny that the breaches were related to, or aided by, the compromise of RSA's SecurID.
Who knew what, when?
Of the three browser providers, only Microsoft explicitly notified its users of the attack on the SSL system, albeit eight days after the bogus credentials had been issued. The notification came only after Comodo posted limited attack details here , here , and here .
According to Jacob Appelbaum, the Tor volunteer who independently discovered the compromise , disclosure was postponed until Wednesday so that all parties could have time to issue browser updates.
Companies often urge researchers to delay notification of attacks or vulnerability discoveries until there is a fix in place to prevent the disclosure of information that could enable additional people from exploiting the weaknesses. But to exploit these compromised certificates, attackers would already have to have access to their corresponding private keys. The decision by Google, Microsoft, Mozilla and Comodo to keep the world in the dark for eight days comes as a slap in the face to their users.
“The attackers had all they needed,” said Marsh Ray, a researcher and software developer at two-factor authentication service PhoneFactor. “Knowing which certificates have been compromised gives an immediate step people can take to secure their systems.”
None of the companies would explain why they waited so long to disclose the attack.