This lesson is mostly a lab: Digital Certificates Lab (CY2018 Fall Students see note to the right).
The lab and the instructor demos that proceed it all revolve around a very basic, profound problem — asymmetric encryption provides us with tools that guarantee confidential, non-repudiated communication between owners of keys.
What it doesn't provide is a way of guaranteeing that the entity behind that public key is who we think it is.
That's what X.509 certificates and other similar systems are for.
Man-in-the-middle is a form of attack that can be
carried out in a variety of scenarios. We will describe it
in terms of attacking RSA, though this is just one kind of
RSA guarantees us the following: you can carry on
communication with the owner of public key
and be sure that:
With the usual Alice and Bob scenario, Alice's public key
is out there on the Internet, as is Bob's public key
because she alone has the matching private key
Similarly, Bob "owns"
because he alone has the matching private key
This is illustrated by the diagram to the right.
Following our usual plan, Alice sends Bob the plaintext
message msg by:
- messages you receive can only be read by you, and can
only have come form the owner of Kpub
- messages you send can only be read by the owner of
Kpub, and the owner of
Kpub will know that they
could only have come form you.
plaintext — encrypt with
... and she sends him ciphertext2.
This works great, as long as Alice is really sure that
belongs to the person she knows as "Bob". When that's no
longer true, things get ugly.
Suppose we have our usual enemy Eve throwing a public key
up on the Internet and claiming it's Alice's public key,
and throwing a public key
up on the Internet and claiming it's Bob's public key.
The diagram to the left illustrates this.
Now Alice thinks she's encrypting her message with
Bob's public key, but the public key
she uses really belongs to Eve. Eve then decrypts and
reads the message, perhaps modifying it a bit, and
then encrypts it using the real Bob's public key. The
real Bob receives the message none the wiser.
What if Alice encrypts with her private key
first, and then with the key
she thinks belongs to Bob? Then Eve decrypts with her key
followed by Alice's public key
she has the plaintext message from Alice.
Once again, she reads the message or changes it.
Then Eve encrypts with her fake key
first, and then with Bob's public key
Bob is able to decrypt the plaintext message.
Because doing so required
the key he believes to be Alice's public key, he thinks
this message really must've come from Alice, and that
nobody could have read it but himself.
This is called a Man-in-the-middle Attack.
Eve, obviously, is the "man-in-the-middle" here.
Eve needs to pull off some kind of misdirection
to make Alice believe
really belongs to Bob, and to make Bob believe
really belong to Alice. But we've seen how to trick
people with spam e-mails, misleading links, and convincing
copies of web pages, which are a few possible ways to do this.
Identity and web servers
At first blush, the fact that Man-in-the-middle attacks work
seems to indicate that RSA (or public key cryptography in general)
has failed us. After all, wasn't it supposed to provide
a guarantee that if Alice sends Bob a message, Bob can be
sure that message really did come from Alice?
In fact, this is not what RSA/Asymmetric Encryption
guarantee. If Bob decrypts with his private key followed by
the public key Kpub, he is only
guaranteed that the message was really sent
by the owner of Kpub. He
has no guarantee of the identity of the owner
So RSA has worked perfectly. It's provided exactly the
guarantee it said it would provide. But we need something
more in order to be safe from Man-in-the-middle attacks.
What we need is a way to match public keys with
It's important to note that this is not merely a technical
problem. What constitutes "identity" is a social problem,
and maybe even a philosophical, problem. However, once
we've decided what identity means, at least in a limited
context, we need technical tools to help bind
identities to public keys — a "public key
infrastructure" (PKI). The particular system we will look
at is based on X.509 Certificates, and it's
responsible for mapping identities to public keys in, for
example, web browsing with HTTPS.
Let's consider the problem of Man-in-the-middle Attacks on
secure web communications, i.e. when using HTTPS. A
man-in-the-middle attack would look like this: you want to
check your balance at the Navy Federal Credit Union, so
www.navyfcu.org in your browser's
address bar. RSA is used to provide secure communications
between your browser and the web server (actually, it's
only used at the beginning in order to agree on a secret
key for that session, after which symmetric encryption is used).
A Man-in-the-middle attack would mean that the public key
your browser thought belonged to
actually belongs to some bad guy.
So what does "identity" mean in this context?
You think you're communicating with Navy Federal
Credit Union. Your browser thinks it's
RSA thinks it's communicating with public key
(4f32 .... 7e). So there are different
notions of who exactly we're communicating with.
In other words, X.509 Certificates certify the mapping of
domain names to public keys.
- RSA is responsible for secure, authenticated
communication with public key
(4f32 .... 7e).
- The X.509 Certificate system is responsible for
certifying that the public key
(4f32 .... 7e) really belongs to
- The user is responsible for knowing that the domain
www.navyfcu.org really belongs to the
Navy Federal Credit Union.
CAC Cards and DoD PKI
Your CAC is a perfect real-world example that brings together a lot of what we talk about
in the Models & Tools section of BRAND:
Pillars of IA (Confidentiality, Authentication, and Non-Repudiation), Asymmetric Cryptography, identity and X.509.
Anyone who receives a CAC must sign* a DD Form 2842:
"You have been authorized to receive one or more
private and public key pairs
and associated certificates.
"The certificates and private keys will be issued on a Common Access Card (CAC).
"A private key enables you to digitally sign
documents and messages and identify yourself
to gain access to systems. You may have another private key to
decrypt data such as encrypted messages.
"People and electronic systems inside and outside the DoD will use
public keys associated with your private keys to
verify your digital signature,
or to verify your identity
when you attempt to authenticate
to systems, or to encrypt data sent to you.
*Note: the DD2842 itself can be digitally signed!
DoD PKI Infrastructure
The Department of Defence has its own Certificate Authorities.
You can view and download them at
DoD's PKI management site:
The DoD PKI is managed by DISA
(Defence Information Systems Agency).
X.509 Certificates ... a matter of trust
X.509 is a standard for a Public Key Infrastructure.
An X.509 Certificate is a file that a user or a program can
use to verify that public key K really belongs to identity
I. A Photo ID like a passport does a similar thing for you:
it certifies that your name really belongs to your face.
Provided a person assures himself that your passport is
valid, i.e. not fake, he'll probably believe that your name
really does belong to your face. That belief is based on
trust: a trust that the U. S. government probably wouldn't
issue that passport to you unless the name in the passport
was really yours. X.509 certificates work the same way,
they are issued by a certificate authority, and if
you trust that certificate authority and you assure yourself
of the validity of the certificate, then you trust that
public key K really belongs to identity I.
Conceptually, a certificate has three pieces of
Certificate authorities have certificates as well, and you
need that certificate in order to to verify that a
certificate is valid. So a participant in this system
keeps on hand the certificates of one or more certificate
authorities it trusts. When a certificate is received for
some entity with whom he wants to communicate, he looks at
the issuer's identity: if that matches the common name of
one of the authorities he trusts, he'll take the
certificate for the authority and use it to verify the new
- subject's identity — in fact there are
several pieces of information identifying the subject, but a
simple string called the common name
CN) is the crucial part. For a
web server, the common name is the domain name.
- subject's public key — in the
certificates we looked at this was an RSA key.
- issuer's identity — again, there are
several pieces of information identifying the issuer, but a
simple string called the common name
CN) is the crucial part.
A look at how, in principle, a certificate system works
Let's add a new actor to our Alice/Bob/Eve play. Suppose
with have a fourth party named Cedric, who is trusted by
both Alice and Bob. Cedric has the public/private key-pair
and Alice and Bob both know his public key.
Suppose Alice presented Cedric with her name "Alice" and
in such a way that Cedric was satisfied that he was really dealing with
Alice. Cedric could make a certificate by encrypting the
with his private key, KCpriv.
Alice could send Bob this certificate before they start
encrypted communication. Bob would decrypt with Cedric's
public key KCpub,
and get the name Alice and the public key
Because Bob knows that KCpub
really belongs to Cedric, he knows that the certificate
really was created by Cedric — because it takes Cedric's
private key to create something decryptable with his public
key. Moreover, since Bob trusts Cedric, he now believes
that the key KApub
belongs to the identity "Alice".
Certificates at the Naval Academy
When you install a browser on your computer, that browser
comes pre-installed with a fairly large number of
certificate authorities that it trusts. A wary user might
want to winnow that down to only the certificate authorities
that are absolutely necessary — i.e. minimize trust.
So what authorities does someone at USNA need to trust? Or
at least, which authorities are we expected to trust?
The interactive SI110 resource
shows you what the certificate chain looks like for
resources Navy Knowledge Online, BUPERS Online, MIDN, our
CAC cards, and gozer.usna.edu (the authentication server for
our gmail accounts). If you trust DoD Root CA 2 as
DoD employees are supposed to, you will automatically trust
the certificate for MIDN, for example, because it is signed
by DOD CA-27, which your browser will trust because
it is signed by DoD Root CA 2, which you trust.
In other words, your browser will trust any certificate that
"chains" back to the DoD Root CA 2 certificate.
The X.509 Certificates Lab (CY2018 Fall Students see note to the right) is designed to make this discussion concrete.
You get to see how X.509 certificates are used in HTTPS communication to verify the identities of the web servers we communicate with.
Going through the activity, you will see what a real X.509 certificate looks like.
You will see where the browser keeps its list of trusted authorities, and you will even see how certificates foil an attempted man-in-the-middle attack.
The Flame Malware: forging certificates
Our discussion of certificates is centered around verifying
the identity of a web server. Certificates can be used to
verify identities in other scenarios. An important one is
to identify the source of software (programs) and software
updates. For instance, Windows has a mechanism to
automatically pull updates (usually bug fixes!) over the
internet and install them on your machine. It's pretty darn
important that you (or your computer, at any rate) can be
certain that the update really came from Microsoft. So the
update comes with a certificate that proves that it's
In the Summer of 2012 a new piece of malware (malicious
software, about which we will have much to say later!)
was discovered on hundreds of machines in the mideast, and
given the name Flame.
Security experts speculate that it was produced by either
the government of the U.S. or of Israel. One of the many
fascinating aspects of Flame is the way it gets onto hosts
in the first place. Basically, it pretends to be a
genuine Microsoft software update, so your computer
willingly installs it. Now, to do that, Flame needed a
valid certificate that "proved" it really came from
Microsoft. So the authors of Flame forged a certificate
by taking an actual valid certificate, and modifying it.
But this isn't supposed to be possible! A certificate
is protected from modification by a hash that cannot be
changed. If the certificate data is modified, the hash value
calculated by your computer, and that unchangeable hash
value won't match. The only way around this is to find a
way to modify the certificate without changing the hash
value — which is referred to as generating a hash
"collision". Well, that's what the Flame authors managed
to do! The Flame authors showed us not only that MD5 is
"broken", in the sense that collisions can be found (which
was already known), but that it's possible to modify data
to read more or less however you want and still get an MD5
collision. That was impressive!
When Certificate Authorities Go Bad
When we install a certificate authority's certificate in our
browser, we are saying "I trust the identify of any server
with a certificate signed by you". That's a big deal!
Of course that means you trust the certificate authority to
be honest (to do thorough background checks, refuse bribes,
etc), but it also means you trust them to keep their systems
secure. When a certificate authority you trust gets hacked, the
attacker can issue fraudulent certificates ... which you
will trust! So when a certificate authority gets hacked,
everyone pretty much loses confidence in them, and
confidence is really the only thing a certificate authority
In 2011, Dutch certificate authority DigiNotar was hacked,
and the attacker issued a large number of fraudulent
certificates, including certificates that would allow him
to pretend to be google! Shortly after the security
breach became public, DigiNotar filed for bankruptcy.
Fall 2011 article
is a concise and easily readable description.
Lenovo Laptops Pre-Loaded w/ Malicious Adware
It was discovered in January 2015 that new Lenovo laptops were being shipped with pre-installed adware that hijacks encrypted web sessions, and may make their users vulnerable to HTTPS man-in-the-middle attacks. The software installs a self-signed root HTTPS certificate that can intercept encrypted traffic for every website a user visits. When a user visits an HTTPS site, the site certificate is signed and controlled by Superfish and falsely represents itself as the official website certificate.
Lenovo has released a statement stating that while this adware was installed on laptops shipped between October-December 2014, it has since stopped pre-loading this particular software onto it's laptops. It should be noted that the USNA Class of 2016 was issued Lenovo laptops...presumably before this software was installed.