Menu
FREAK is another serious flaw in the Web's encryption

FREAK is another serious flaw in the Web's encryption

US export restrictions on encryption technology from the 1990s have come back to haunt the modern Web

Experts are warning of a serious security flaw that has apparently gone undetected for years and can weaken encrypted connections between computers and websites, potentially undermining security across the Internet.

The flaw, which has been dubbed FREAK, affects the widely used Secure Sockets Layer protocol and its successor, Transport Layer Security, and can allow an attacker to intercept supposedly encrypted traffic as it moves between clients and servers.

The flaw affects many popular websites, as well as programs including Apple's Safari browser and Google's Android mobile OS, security experts say. Applications that use a version of OpenSSL prior to 1.0.1k are also vulnerable to the bug, detailed in this advisory.

The problem stems from export restrictions imposed by the U.S. government in the early 1990s, which prohibited software makers from shipping products with strong encryption overseas, wrote Ed Felten, professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University.

That meant some companies shipped a version of their products with weaker encryption keys for use overseas. When the law was changed and it became legal to export stronger encryption, "the export mode feature was not removed from the protocol because some software still depended on it," Felten wrote.

The vulnerability that has come to light now essentially allows attackers to downgrade the security of connections from strong encryption to that of the weaker, export-grade encryption.

Servers and devices that use OpenSSL, an open-source encryption program, are vulnerable, including many Google and Apple devices, embedded systems and other products, according to an advisory. Servers or clients that accept the RSA_EXPORT cipher suites are at risk. FREAK stands for Factoring attack on RSA-EXPORT Keys.

The keys can be downgraded by performing a man-in-the-middle attack that interferes with the set-up process of an encrypted connection. Although there are defenses in the SSL/TLS protocol to prevent such tampering, they can be worked around. The weaker, 512-bit key can be revealed using today's powerful computers, and the data traffic can then be decrypted.

Today's protocols use longer encryption keys, and the standard is 2,048-bit RSA. The 512-bit keys were considered secure two decades ago, but an attacker could recover the key they need quite easily today using a public cloud service.

"Back in the '90s, that would have required a heavy-duty computation, but today it takes about seven hours on Amazon EC2 and costs about $100," Felten wrote.

Companies are moving fast to fix the issue. Akamai, a content delivery network that supports a high number of websites, said it has distributed a fix for its network.

However, some clients may still be vulnerable, wrote Bill Brenner of Akamai.

"We can't fix those clients, but we can avoid the problem by disabling export ciphers," he wrote. "Because this is a client side issue, we've reached out to our customers and are working with them to make this change."

The vulnerability was discovered by Karthikeyan Bhargavan of INRIA, a French science and technology research institute, and by Microsoft Research. A technical paper describing FREAK is due to be presented at the IEEE's Security and Privacy conference in San Jose, California, in May.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk


Follow Us

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags GoogleAppleExploits / vulnerabilities

Featured

Slideshows

The making of an MSSP: a blueprint for growth in NZ

The making of an MSSP: a blueprint for growth in NZ

Partners are actively building out security practices and services to match, yet remain challenged by a lack of guidance in the market. This exclusive Reseller News Roundtable - in association with Sophos - assessed the making of an MSSP, outlining the blueprint for growth and how partners can differentiate in New Zealand.

The making of an MSSP: a blueprint for growth in NZ
Reseller News Platinum Club celebrates leading partners in 2018

Reseller News Platinum Club celebrates leading partners in 2018

The leading players of the New Zealand channel came together to celebrate a year of achievement at the inaugural Reseller News Platinum Club lunch in Auckland. Following the Reseller News Innovation Awards, Platinum Club provides a platform to showcase the top performing partners and start-ups of the past 12 months, with more than ​​50 organisations in the spotlight.​​​

Reseller News Platinum Club celebrates leading partners in 2018
Meet the top performing HP partners in NZ

Meet the top performing HP partners in NZ

HP has honoured its leading partners in New Zealand during 2018, following 12 months of growth through the local channel. Unveiled during the fourth running of the ceremony in Auckland, the awards recognise and celebrate excellence, growth, consistency and engagement of standout Kiwi partners.

Meet the top performing HP partners in NZ
Show Comments