In Part 1 of the series Signatures, Key Management, and Trust in Software Supply Chains, I wrote about the basic concepts of identities, signatures, and attestation. In this one, I will expand on the house buying scenario, that I hinted about in Part 1, and will describe a few ways to exploit it in the physical world. Then, I will map this scenario to the digital world and delve into a few possible exploits. Throughout this, I will also suggest a few possible mitigations in both the physical as well as the digital world. The whole process as you may have already known is called threat modeling.
Exploiting Signatures Without Attestation in the Offline World
For the purpose of this scenario, we will assume that the parties involved are me and the title company. The document that needs to be signed is the deed (we can also call it the artifact). Here is a visual representation of the scenario:
- The title company has an inherent trust in the government.
- This means that the title company will trust any government-issued identification like a driving license.
- In my meeting with the title company, I present my driving license.
- The title company verifies the driving license is legit and establishes trust in me.
- Last, the title company trusts the signature that I use to sign the deed in front of them.
- From here on, the title company trusts the deed to proceed with the transaction.
As we can see, establishing trust between the parties involves two important conditions – implicit trust in a central authority and verification of identity. Though, this process is easily exploitable with fake IDs (like fake driving license) as shown in the picture below.
In this case, an imposter can obtain a fake driving license and impersonate me in the transaction. If the title company can be fooled that the driving license is issued by the government, they can falsely establish trust in the imposter and allow him to sign the deed. From there on, the title company considers the deed trusted and continues with the transaction.
The problem here is with the verification step – the title company does not do a real-time verification if the driving license is legitimate. The verification step is done manually and offline by an employee of the title company and relies on her or his experience to recognize forged driving licenses. If this “gate” is passed, the signature on the deed becomes official and will not be verified anymore in the process.
There is one important step in this process that we didn’t mention yet. When the title company employee verifies the driving license, she or he also takes a photocopy of the driving license and attaches it to the documentation. This photocopy becomes part of the audit trail for the transaction if later on is discovered that the transaction needs to be reverted.
Exploiting Signatures Without Attestation in the Digital World
The above process is easily transferable to the digital world. In the following GitHub project I have an example of signing a simple text file
artifact.txt. The example uses self-signed certificates for verifying the identity and the signature.
There are two folders in the repository. The
real folder contains the files used to generate a key and X.509 certificate that is tied to my real identity and verified using my real domain name toddysm.com. The
fake folder contains the files used to generate a key and X.509 certificate that is tied to an imposter identity that can be verified with a look-alike (or fake) domain. The look-alike domain uses homographs to replace certain characters in my domain name. If the imposter has ownership of the imposter domain, obtaining a trusted certificate with that domain name is easily achievable.
openssl x509 -nameopt lname,utf8 -in [cert-file].crt -text -noout | grep Subject: openssl x509 -nameopt lname,utf8 -in [cert-file].crt -text -noout | grep Issuer:
they both return visually indistinguishable information:
Subject: countryName=US, stateOrProvinceName=WA, localityName=Seattle, organizationName=Toddy Mladenov, commonName=toddysm.com, emailAddressemail@example.com Issuer: countryName=US, stateOrProvinceName=WA, localityName=Seattle, organizationName=Toddy Mladenov, commonName=toddysm.com, emailAddressfirstname.lastname@example.org
It is the same as looking at two identical driving licenses, a legitimate one and a forged one, that have no visible differences.
The barrier for this exploit using PGP keys and SSH keys is even lower. While X.509 certificates need to be issued by a trusted certificate authority (CA), PGP and SSH keys can be issued by anybody. Here is a corresponding example of a valid PGP key and an imposter PGP key. Once again, which one would you trust?
Though, compromising CAs is not something that we can ignore. There are numerous examples where forged certificates issued by legitimate CAs are used:
- DigiNotar was compromised in 2011 and numerous certificates were issued and used in man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.
- Comodo was another CA that was compromised around the same time.
- Symantec was removed from the list of trusted CAs after consensus was reached among multiple browser makers for a graduated distrust of Symantec roots.
- And just a few days ago, Let’s Encrypt announced that it is revoking “mis-issued” certificates.
- Last but not least, the underground market of counterfeit certificates is on the rise as also shown by this analysis.
Let’s also not forget that Stuxnet malware was signed by compromised JMicron and Realtec private keys. In the case of compromised CA, malicious actors don’t even need to use homographs to deceive the public – they can issue the certificate with the real name and domain.
Unlike the physical world though, the digital one misses the very important step of collecting audit information when the signature is verified. I will come back to that in the next post of the series where I plan to explore the various controls that can be put to increase security.
Based on the above though, it is obvious that the trust whether in a single entity or a central certificate authority (CA), has highly diminished in recent years.
Oh, and don’t trust the keys that I published on GitHub! 🙂 Anybody can copy them or generate new ones with my information – unfortunately obtaining that information is quite easy nowadays.
Exploiting Signatures With Attestation in the Offline World
Let’s look at the example I introduced in the previous post where more parties are involved in the process of selling my house. Here is the whole scenario!
Because I am unable to attend the signing of the documents, I need to issue a power of attorney for somebody to represent me. This person will be able to sign the documents on my behalf. First and foremost, I need to trust that person. But my trust in this person doesn’t automatically transfer to the title company that will handle the transaction. For the title company to trust my representative, the power of attorney needs to be attested by a certified notary. Only then will the title company trust the power of attorney document and accept the signature of my representative.
Here is the question: “How the introduction of the notary increases the security?” Note that I used the term “increase security”. While there is no 100% guarantee that this process will not fail…
By adding one more step to the process, we introduce an additional obstacle that reduces the probability for malicious activity to happen, which increases the security.
What the notary will eventually prevent is that my “representative” forcefully makes me sign the power of attorney. My security is compromised and now my evil representative can use the power of attorney to sell my house to himself for just a dollar. The purpose of the notary is to attest that I willfully signed the document and was present (and in good health) during the signing. Of course, this can easily be exploited if both, the representative and the notary are evil, as shown in the below diagram.
As you can see in this scenario, all parties have valid government-issued IDs that the title company trusts. However, the process is compromised if there is collusion between the malicious actor (evil representative) and the notary.
Other ways to exploit this process are if the notary or my representative are both or individually impersonated. The impersonation is described in the section above – Exploiting Signatures Without Attestation in the Offline World.
Exploiting Signatures With Attestation in the Digital World
There is a lot of talks recently about implementing attestation systems that will save signature receipts in an immutable ledger. This is presented as the silver bullet solution for signing software artifacts (check out the Sigstore project). Similar to the notary example in the previous section, this approach may increase security but it may also have a negative impact. Because they compare themselves to Let’s Encrypt, let me take a stab at how Let’s Encrypt impacted the security on the Web.
Before Let’s Encrypt, only owners that want to invest money to pay for valid certificates had HTTPS enabled on their websites. More importantly, though, browsers showed a clear indicator when a site was using plain HTTP protocol and not the secure one. From a user’s point of view it was easy to make the decision that if the browser address bar was red, you should not enter your username and password or your credit card. Recognizing malicious sites was relatively easy because malicious actors didn’t want to spend the money and time to get a valid certificate.
Let’s Encrypt (and the browser vendors) changed that paradigm. Being free, Let’s Encrypt allows anybody to issue a valid (and “trusted”??? 🤔) certificate and enable HTTPS for their site. Not only that but Let’s Encrypt made it so easy that you can get the certificate issued and deployed to your web server using automation within seconds. The only proof you need to provide is the ownership of the domain name for your server. At the same time, Google led the campaign to change the browser indicators to show a very mediocre lock icon in the address bar that nobody except maybe a few pays any attention to anymore. As a result, every malicious website now has HTTPS enabled and there is no indication in the browser to tell you that it is malicious. In essence, the lock gives you a false sense of security.
I would argue that Let’s Encrypt (and the browser vendors) in fact decreased the security on the web instead of increasing it. Let me be clear! While I think Let’s Encrypt (and the browser vendors) decreased the security, what they provide had a tremendous impact on privacy. Privacy should not be discounted! Though in marketing messages those two terms are used interchangeably and this is not for the benefit of the users.
In the digital world, the CA can play the role of the notary in the physical world. The CA verifies the identity of the entity that wants to sign artifacts and issues a “trusted” certificate. Similar to a physical world notary, the CA will issue a certificate for both legit as well as malicious actors, and unlike the physical world, the CA has very basic means to verify identities. In the case of Let’s Encrypt this is the domain ownership. In the case of Sigstore that will be a GitHub account. Everyone can easily buy a domain or register a GitHub account and get a valid certificate. This doesn’t mean though that you should trust it.
The takeaway from this post for you should be that every system can be exploited. We learn and create systems that reduce the opportunities for exploitation but that doesn’t make them bulletproof. Also, when evaluating technologies we should not only look at the shortcomings of the previous technology but also at the shortcoming of the new shiny one. Just adding attestation to the signatures will not be enough to make signatures more secure.
In the next post, I will look at some techniques that we can employ to make signatures and attestations more secure.