RSA says it fathered orphan credential in Firefox, Mac OS

Ultra-sensitive root cert no longer homeless


Updated Digital certificate authority RSA Security on Tuesday acknowledged it issued a root authentication credential shipped in in the Mac operating system and Mozilla web browsers and email programs, ending four days of confusion about who controlled the ultra-sensitive document.

The "RSA Security 1024 V3" certificate is a master credential that can be used to digitally validate the certificates of an unlimited number of websites and email servers. It's one of several dozen "certificate authority certificates" that by default are shipped with Mac OS X and Mozilla's Firefox browser and Thunderbird email client. It's valid from 2001 to 2026.

But until a few minutes after this article was first published, no one knew who issued or controlled the credential. Both RSA and competing certificate issuer VeriSign previously said it wasn't theirs. Further compounding the mystery, recent audits of certificate authority credentials made no reference of it, according to this bug report posted to Mozilla's website for developers and a follow-up post on Google Groups.

Although now solved, the case of the orphaned certificate casts doubt on the security of some of the web's most important documents.

Owners of the certificate authority certificates act as locksmiths who can at will produce the digital keys used to prove a website or email server really is operated by the bank, retailer, or other trusted organization claiming ownership. The inclusion of a mysterious CA certificate into two separate organizations caused many to question whether it was the result of a clerical error or the deliberate act of a criminal.

"Either way, it's a very concerning situation," security researcher Moxie Marlinspike said before RSA stepped forward as the issuer. "Either an unknown attacker somewhere in the world has had unlimited access to SSL traffic for an unknown amount of time, or the people who we have entrusted with this critical piece of web infrastructure can't even keep track of their own certificates."

In a statement, Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla's director of Firefox development, played down the significance of the discovery, saying all certificates are vetted according to this policy. But he also tacitly admitted Mozilla didn't know who controlled it.

"The RSA key here is one that's been around for some time, though, and whose corporate ownership has likely changed since its inclusion," he said. "What we know now is that neither RSA (maintainers of the similarly-named 2048 bit key) nor VeriSign (maintainers of the RSA Data Security Inc. key) currently use the root or get audits against it, which is why we're removing it."

Shortly after this article was published, a Mozilla spokeswoman said the organization later learned that the root certificate was indeed issued by RSA.

Members of Apple's public relations team didn't respond to an email seeking comment.

While the mystery remained unsolved, Firefox users on Google Groups proposed removing the RSA certificate from the NSS, or network security services, library that ships with Firefox. With the origin of the certificate now known, that revocation may not be as urgent.

But the episode makes you wonder: How many other certificates with murky origins are floating around in browsers, email clients and operating systems? And beyond that, how many of these certificates are really needed? Users should call for an accounting the CA certificates included in their software. And RSA should explain how it lost track of such a sensitive document. ®

This article was rewritten throughout to report that, after publication, RSA stepped forward as the issuer the root certificate.


Other stories you might like

  • It's primed and full of fuel, the James Webb Space Telescope is ready to be packed up prior to launch

    Fingers crossed the telescope will finally take to space on 22 December

    Engineers have finished pumping the James Webb Space Telescope with fuel, and are now preparing to carefully place the folded instrument inside the top of a rocket, expected to blast off later this month.

    “Propellant tanks were filled separately with 79.5 [liters] of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidiser and 159 [liters of] hydrazine,” the European Space Agency confirmed on Monday. “Oxidiser improves the burn efficiency of the hydrazine fuel.” The fuelling process took ten days and finished on 3 December.

    All eyes are on the JWST as it enters the last leg of its journey to space; astronomers have been waiting for this moment since development for the world’s largest space telescope began in 1996.

    Continue reading
  • China to upgrade mainstream RISC-V chips every six months

    Home-baked silicon is the way forward

    China is gut punching Moore's Law and the roughly one-year cadence for major chip releases adopted by the Intel, AMD, Nvidia and others.

    The government-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is developing open-source RISC-V performance processor, says it will release major design upgrades every six months. CAS is hoping that the accelerated release of chip designs will build up momentum and support for its open-source project.

    RISC-V is based on an open-source instruction architecture, and is royalty free, meaning companies can adopt designs without paying licensing fees.

    Continue reading
  • The SEC is investigating whistleblower claims that Tesla was reckless as its solar panels go up in smoke

    Tens of thousands of homeowners and hundreds of businesses were at risk, lawsuit claims

    The Securities and Exchange Commission has launched an investigation into whether Tesla failed to tell investors and customers about the fire risks of its faulty solar panels.

    Whistleblower and ex-employee, Steven Henkes, accused the company of flouting safety issues in a complaint with the SEC in 2019. He filed a freedom of information request to regulators and asked to see records relating to the case in September, earlier this year. An SEC official declined to hand over documents, and confirmed its probe into the company is still in progress.

    “We have confirmed with Division of Enforcement staff that the investigation from which you seek records is still active and ongoing," a letter from the SEC said in a reply to Henkes’ request, according to Reuters. Active SEC complaints and investigations are typically confidential. “The SEC does not comment on the existence or nonexistence of a possible investigation,” a spokesperson from the regulatory agency told The Register.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021