Old US Encryption Export Limits Return To Haunt Web

A "zombie" vulnerability left over from decades-old U.S. security policies on encryption could leave a huge number of Web sites open to "man-in-the-middle" attacks when viewed with OpenSSL browsers like Android or with Apple Safari, a team of researchers has found. The so-called FREAK attack arises when certain browsers attempt to establish a connection with Web servers, enabling acceptance of less-than-secure encryption keys.

FREAK, which stands for "Factoring RSA Export Keys," was discovered by cryptographers with the French research establishment INRIA, Spain's IMDEA research institute and Microsoft Research. They found that Safari's SecureTransport and Google's OpenSSL clients could be "tricked" into accepting a less-secure encryption key from a Web server because of a flaw left over from 1990s-era U.S. government export controls on encryption technologies.

Those controls required encryption systems exported from the U.S. to have weaker standards than those sold in the U.S. While today's requirements are no longer so stringent, those export-grade security connections may still be enabled for many Web sites.

FREAK Enabled on NSA, FBI Web Sites

We contacted the research team to learn more about how they discovered the FREAK vulnerability.

"We were analysing various SSL/TLS clients (e.g. browsers) and servers (Web sites) as part of a research project and we found a number of unexpected behaviors (see www.smacktls.com)," INRIA researcher Karthikeyan Bhargavan said via email. "Some of these behaviors resulted in attacks, such as FREAK."

FREAK works by messing with the standard encryption requirements for establishing Internet connections. The SSL protocol created by Netscape in the 1990s -- and the TSL protocol that replaced it -- requires an RSA encryption key to connect a client browser with a Web server. FREAK, however, enables the client to accept a less-secure, export-grade 512-bit RSA key rather than a standard RSA key.

"Support for these weak algorithms has...

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