Digital-certificate authority VeriSign Inc. issued two certificates in January to someone posing as a Microsoft employee, says a Microsoft spokeswoman. Armed with the certificates, the person could fool people into downloading a virus when they think they are getting Microsoft software. An FBI investigation into the matter is ongoing.
According to Microsoft, the unknown person was issued certificates Jan. 29 and 30. Legitimate certificates are meant to assure people that they are accepting patches and other software from a given company. Use of the bogus certificates could affect users of Windows 95, 98, Millennium Edition, NT 4.0, and 2000. VeriSign could not be reached at deadline.
Microsoft says that although VeriSign has revoked the certificates, it's impossible for browsers to verify the validity of the certificate. Microsoft says it is working on a fix for that problem.
Until the update is ready, Microsoft is urging all Windows users to carefully check all security-warning dialogue boxes for certificates issued either Jan. 29 or 30. Such boxes ask people if they want to install and run the program or files signed, for example, on 1/29/01 by Microsoft. No valid Microsoft certificates were issued on those dates. The company also suggests users install its Outlook E-mail Security Update, which stops malicious apps sent via E-mail from launching automatically, and its Office Document Open Confirmation Tool, which forces Web pages to request permission before opening Office documents.
Analysts say this incident shouldn't take away from the strengths of digital certificates as a security tool, but it does point to the weakness of the digital-certificate-assignment process. Says Hurwitz Group analyst Pete Lindstrom, the initial authentication process is "the Achilles heel" of public key infrastructure.
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