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A cursory and superficial analysis of the Google/Symantec “knife fight”

20 November 2016 07:32:16 +0000

There is an African proverb: “When elephants fight the grass suffers.” I think this fairly describes the “knife fight” — a popular term in some recent media coverage of the American presidential transition — between Google and Symantec recently.

As described on our status blog, a bug (Google, Symantec) in the Google Chromium web browser caused Chromium users to see certificate errors when trying to access websites secured with valid certificates issued by Symantec and it’s subsidiaries — e.g., Geotrust, RapidSSL, Thawte and possibly others too. This included large websites such as Amazon, Flickr and Yahoo.

The knife fight first came to our attention probably a year or so ago, likely in an email from the certificate authority (CA) that we use for most of the SSL certificates we sell to clients and use ourselves. That CA is RapidSSL, a subsidiary of Symantec.

Now, it seems that Symantec did something bad in 2015: they created some certificates for domains that had neither requested nor authorised them. This was likely for testing purposes, although you do have to wonder about the IQ of the person at Symantec who authorised this. Google was particularly annoyed, because two of those certificates were for google.com and www.google.com.

What followed was some serious holier-than-thou public finger wagging at Symantec by Google, pontification worthy of a schoolmarm armed with a wooden ruler rapping the knuckles of the Symantec child. Bad, bad Symantec, now we’re going to shame you and be nasty to you in public, and tell you how you should be running your business. Which is all well and good, because Symantec did something stupid and should suffer the consequences.

One of those consequences was Google using the power it wields by virtue of the fact that it creates the most popular web browser on the planet — power that Microsoft used to wield, and also abused — to single out Symantec certificates for special treatment. (Why Google Chrome [and its progenitor Chromium] are so popular is beyond me. I’ve used Chromium and Chrome as secondary browsers on Linux and Windows machines, but my personal experience is that it’s slower and less configurable than Firefox.) Starting in June 2016 Google required Symantec to jump through hoops it doesn’t require of other CAs. Is that abuse of power? Some say no, and it’s difficult to disagree with them. However, Google then also did something bad and stupid themselves, by creating a situation that led to what they’ve called a “time bomb”, meaning that most (if not all) Symantec certificates stopped being trusted by Google Chromium in early to mid-November.

The upshot of this is that it was innocent third parties — the proverbial grass, the customers of Symantec that bought their certificates, and some users of Chromium — that were hurt by this knife fight. I’d love to know how much business Amazon lost as a result, and if we can expect a lawsuit and a payout from Google.

Configuring our servers against “POODLE”, SSL/TLS, and email security

24 October 2014 15:52:19 +0000

The maintenance to protect against the “POODLE” exploit has been finished, as we’ve noted on our status blog. While I’d like this to be a short post stating just that, like the maintenance itself, there is more to it than meets the eye.

What was anticipated to take about an hour during a scheduled weekend maintenance window ended up taking much longer as we waded through the pros and cons of configuring some or all services to disable SSL version 3. (Of course, very few people know about and can prepare for these things in advance.) First, there was some debate in information security circles about just how serious this issue was/is, how quickly it needed to be addressed, and by whom. In short, some took it more seriously than others, but there was general agreement that other issues (Heartbleed and Shellshock, for example) were much bigger. Those that didn’t feel it was that serious had their reasons, but we’re not in business to gamble with your security.

While this is a vulnerability in a protocol (SSL version 3) that is (or has been) used to secure different types of connections, the main area of concern was with HTTPS connections — i.e., web browsing. To my knowledge, the only known exploit of this protocol vulnerability uses JavaScript, and only over HTTPS connections. In other words, there is currently no known issue with using SSLv3 to secure non-HTTPS connections — e.g., email.

To that end SSLv3 will still work on some of our mail servers. How this is handled — if your email program can’t use TLS — differs between email programs, with some email clients failing silently and establishing a non-secure connection instead, and some failing completely to connect. We expect that most email programs using our existing suggested configurations will continue to work across all of our servers. However, while we have not had any reports of issues from clients, one of the reasons this took longer than anticipated was the surprising number of current or recent email clients that stopped working when we disabled SSLv3 on the mail servers. Connections by email clients configured to use SSLv3 still work on server NC018, while on NC027 they will fail silently as described above. This is related to the differing behaviour of the software running these two mail servers.

All web servers (including control panels) were configured to deny SSLv3 connections by Monday this week. Web browser developers seem to have kept up with and done a better job implementing TLS in current versions than some email client developers. As we’ve stated several times previously, Outlook 2003 should be relegated to the past, along with Microsoft Internet Explorer version 6. The latter uses only SSL (and has TLS disabled) by default. Microsoft, of all people, have actually had an active campaign to discourage the use of MSIE 6 since 2009 with their ie6countdown.com website; according to that website, only 3.3% of users worldwide are still using MSIE 6, and about three quarters of them are in China. Put it this way, using MSIE 6 today is like trying to drive a Model T Ford on modern roads among modern cars, expecting to go as fast as modern cars and to be serviced by modern mechanics. In short, using certain software today is simply a bad idea, even if it still appears to some people to work.

Another thing I’d like to address here is the difference between SSL (secure sockets layer) and TLS (transport layer security) … or, more correctly, the perceived difference. There is no difference. They are essentially the same thing. For all intents and purposes, the lay person can consider TLS version 1.0 to be SSL version 4.0. That’s not true from a technical standpoint, but as someone who deals every day with clients who just want their computers to work and are more concerned about the intricacies of their trucking business (for example), they do the same thing: encrypt your Internet connections. TLS, as the successor to SSL, is newer and better (as the “SSL version 4.0″ comparison above makes clear), and you should use TLS in preference to SSL any time you have a choice.

Finally, a word about email security. It has become more and more clear to me over the years that the trend in software development is to hide things from the average user. There is a point to which this is good; after all, if you had to type in all of the commands that your email program (for example) uses to connect to the mail server to download or send your email, you might as well write a letter with a quill and ink and send it via carrier pigeon. However, if your email program is going to fail silently and send your message in the clear — i.e., over an unencrypted connection — that’s something you probably want to know about if you thought you were using an encrypted connection. But this is not something you will read about in glossy brochures extolling the virtues of this email program or that. The fact is, most people will never be aware of such an issue, and those that have the most to fear — for example, people living in or reporting on dictatorships — will only realise they have a problem when there is that ominous knock at the door that reveals their communications have been compromised.

For this reason it is not enough to rely on your email service provider — not even NinerNet Communications — to secure your communications if you are, for example, an activist in a police state or a reporter with confidential sources. No, you have to take that responsibility on yourself by encrypting the actual messages you send before you send them. How to do this is certainly beyond the scope of this post, and even if you were to do it it may not be necessary for all of your communications. But going to this extent to protect yourself in this way takes extra time and effort and may require additional software on your computer, but at the end of the day you need to determine for yourself the pros and cons in your own cost-benefit analysis.

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This is the corporate blog of NinerNet Communications. It's where we post announcements, inform and educate our clients, and discuss issues related to the Internet (web and email) hosting business and all that that entails. This includes such concomitant industries and activities such a domain registration, SSL certificates, online back-up, virtual private servers (VPS), cloud hosting, etc. Please visit our main website for more information about us.

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