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March 21, 2015

How to Responsibly Publish a Misissued SSL Certificate

SSL certificate misissuance is in the news again. This time, it's not the certificate authorities who messed up, but rather email service providers who allowed their users to register email addresses at one of the five administrative addresses allowed to approve certificates (admin@, administrator@, hostmaster@, postmaster@, and webmaster@). Last week, Windows Live's Finnish domain ( fell victim, and today, Remy van Elst got a misissued cert for, a Dutch ISP.

Unfortunately, van Elst, at the end of an otherwise good blog post, published the private key for the misissued cert. This was irresponsible, because although the cert has been revoked, certificate revocation doesn't work (see also my own WTF moment with revocation), so the certificate will be still be usable for man-in-the-middle attacks until it expires on March 19, 2016. Fortunately, browsers can push out updates to explicitly blacklist it (Chrome is especially good since it has the CRLSet system, and in fact, the cert is already blacklisted), but this doesn't help non-browser clients or users running out-of-date browsers.

If I ever came across an email service provider allowing administrative addresses to be registered, I would contact them first and try to spare everyone the headache of a misissued cert. Unfortunately, sometimes a proof-of-concept is needed to get security problems fixed in a reasonable (or even finite) amount of time. If you need to go this route, you should do it responsibly, and remember that as a responsible security researcher, your goal is not to actually MitM the target, but to demonstrate that you were able to obtain a certificate for it. That means destroying the private key immediately, and using a method besides publishing the key to prove you had possession of it.

Conveniently, the CSR, which you need to generate anyways, is signed with the private key, providing proof of possession. When you generate the CSR, put something unique in the CSR's organization field, such as "YOURNAME's Fake Certs, Inc." (This field is ignored for DV certificates so this shouldn't affect your ability to get a certificate.) The CSR's signature will prove that whoever generated the CSR had possession of the private key, and putting your name in the CSR will prove that you generated the CSR, thus proving that you had possession of the private key. Submit the CSR to the CA, and when you get the misissued certificate back, publish it along with the CSR as your proof.

Here's the OpenSSL command to generate a private key and CSR for Note that I tell OpenSSL to write the private key to /dev/null, ensuring that it's immediately discarded, without even hitting the filesystem.

$ openssl req -new -nodes -newkey rsa:2048 -keyout /dev/null -out Generating a 2048 bit RSA private key ....................................................+++ ..................................+++ writing new private key to '/dev/null' ----- You are about to be asked to enter information that will be incorporated into your certificate request. What you are about to enter is what is called a Distinguished Name or a DN. There are quite a few fields but you can leave some blank For some fields there will be a default value, If you enter '.', the field will be left blank. ----- Country Name (2 letter code) [AU]:US State or Province Name (full name) [Some-State]:California Locality Name (eg, city) []: Organization Name (eg, company) [Internet Widgits Pty Ltd]:Andrew's Fake Certs, Inc. Organizational Unit Name (eg, section) []: Common Name (e.g. server FQDN or YOUR name) [] Email Address []: Please enter the following 'extra' attributes to be sent with your certificate request A challenge password []: An optional company name []:

For reference, here's the resulting CSR, and here's the corresponding certificate (signed by an untrusted certificate authority that I use for testing).

Here's how to compare the public key in the CSR against the public key in the certificate:

$ openssl req -noout -pubkey -in | openssl pkey -pubin -pubout -outform DER | sha256sum a501928ab50fb9c0e8c8f006816acb462eb90cfea00c5139ba7333046260bff0 - $ openssl x509 -noout -pubkey -in | openssl pkey -pubin -pubout -outform DER | sha256sum a501928ab50fb9c0e8c8f006816acb462eb90cfea00c5139ba7333046260bff0 -

And here's how to verify the CSR's signature and print its subject:

$ openssl req -noout -verify -subject -in verify OK subject=/C=US/ST=California/O=Andrew's Fake Certs, Inc./

There you go - proof that I got a certificate for a private key under my control, without having to publish, or even keep around, the private key.


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