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Verisign’s security angst no reason to delay new gTLDs, says expert

Kevin Murphy, April 7, 2013, 03:02:45 (UTC), Domain Tech

Potential security vulnerabilities recently disclosed by Verisign and PayPal are well in hand and not a reason to delay the launch of new gTLDs, according to the chair of ICANN’s security committee.

Patrick Falstrom, chair of the Security and Stability Advisory Committee, said today that the risk of disastrous clashes between new gTLDs and corporate security certificates has been taken care of.

Talking to the GNSO Council at the ICANN public meeting in Beijing, he gave a definitive “no” when asked directly if the SSAC would advise ICANN to delay the delegation of new gTLDs for security reasons.

Falstrom had given a presentation on “internal name certificates”, one of the security risks raised by Verisign in a paper last week.

These are the same kinds of digital certificates given out by Certificate Authorities for use in SSL transactions on the web, but to companies for their own internal network use instead.

The SSAC, judging by Falstrom’s presentation, had a bit of an ‘oh-shit’ moment late last year when a member raised the possibility of new gTLDs clashing with the domain names on these certificates.

Consider the scenario:

A company has a private namespace on its LAN called .corp, for example, where it stores all of its sensitive corporate data. It uses a digital certificate, issued by a reputable CA, to encrypt this data in transit.

But today we have more than a few applicants for .corp that would use it as a gTLD accessible to the whole internet.

Should .corp get delegated by ICANN — which of course is by no means assured — then there could be the risk of CAs issuing certificates for public domains that clash with private domains.

That might enable, for example, a hacker on a Starbucks wifi network to present his evil laptop as a secured, green-padlocked, corporate server to an unlucky road warrior sitting in the same cafe.

According to Falstrom, at least 157 CAs have issued certificates that clash with applied-for new gTLDs. The actual number is probably much higher.

This risk was outlined in Verisign’s controversial security report to ICANN, which recommended delay to the new gTLD program until security problems were resolved, two weeks ago.

But Falstrom told the GNSO Council today that recent secretive work by the SSAC, along with ICANN security staff and the CA/Browser Forum, a certificate industry authority, has mitigated this risk to the point that delay is not needed.

Falstrom said that after the SSAC realized that there was a potential vulnerability, it got it touch with the CA/Browser Forum to share its concerns. But as it turned out, the Forum was already on the case.

The Forum decided in February, a couple of weeks after an SSAC briefing, that member CAs should stop issuing internal name certificates that clash with new gTLDs within 30 days of ICANN signing a registry contract for that gTLD.

It has also decided to revoke any already-issued internal domain certificate that clashes with a new gTLD within 120 days of contract signing.

This means that the vulnerability window will be much shorter, should the vulnerability start getting exploited in wild.

But only if all CAs conform to the CA/Browser Forum’s guidelines.

Much of this is detailed in a report issued by SSAC last month (pdf). The CA/Browser Forum’s guidance is here (pdf). Falstrom’s PowerPoint is available here (pdf)

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