An international team of researchers warned that more than 11 million websites and e-mail services protected by the transport layer security protocol are vulnerable to a new, low-cost attack that decrypts sensitive communications in few hours.
The cybersecurity experts from universities in Israel, Germany and the US as well as a member of Google’s security team found that more than 81,000 of top one million popular websites are vulnerable.
The researchers said many popular sites – including ones belonging to Samsung, Yahoo and a leading Indian bank – appeared to be vulnerable.
The DROWN attack works against TLS-protected communications that rely on the RSA cryptosystem when the key is exposed even indirectly through short for secure sockets layer version 2 (SSLv2).
The vulnerability allows everyone on the internet to browse the web, use e-mail, shop online and send instant messages without third-parties being able to read the communication. It allows attackers to break the encryption and read or steal sensitive communications, including passwords, credit card numbers, trade secrets, or financial data. Under some common scenarios, an attacker can also impersonate a secure website and intercept or change the content the user sees.
While many security experts believed the removal of SSLv2 support from browser and e-mail clients prevented abuse of the legacy protocol, some misconfigured TLS implementations still tacitly support the legacy protocol when an end-user computer specifically requests its use.
Websites, mail servers, and other TLS-dependent services are at risk for this attack, and many popular sites are affected.
In practice, older email servers would be more likely to have this problem than the newer computers typically used to power websites.
In addition, because many of the servers vulnerable to Drown were also affected by a separate bug, a successful attack could be carried out using a home computer.
Though a fix has been issued but it will take time for many of the website administrators to protect their systems.
The researchers have released a tool that identifies websites that appear to be vulnerable.
The SSLv2 protocol was weakened because, at the time of its creation, the US government wanted to try to restrict the availability of tough encryption standards to other countries.
It has since eased its export limits, but the effects live on.