Report: Dutch government was unprepared for SSL hack

Government bodies depend too much on IT departments when it comes to the acquisition of SSL-certificates

The Dutch government was unprepared to handle an SSL hack that caused the government's communication infrastructure to be vulnerable for months, the Dutch Safety Board said in report on Thursday. Because the government was unable to replace the certificates immediately, citizen and company data was left unsecured, the board said.

The Dutch government was unprepared to handle an SSL hack that caused the government's communication infrastructure to be vulnerable for months, the Dutch Safety Board said in a report on Thursday. Because the government was unable to replace the certificates immediately, citizen and company data was left unsecured, the board said.

The Dutch government's communications safety was severely compromised in 2011 after a hacker broke into DigiNotar, a Dutch provider of Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificates that are used to protect digital communication. The DigiNotar hack rendered all certificates issued by the company untrustworthy, and thus affected the digital security of Dutch government and tax systems, among others.

The government however, could not immediately revoke the DigiNotar certificates after the hack was discovered, because this would disturb or even block Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications of essential government systems, the Minister of the Interior, Piet Hein Donner said at the time.

Replacing all DigiNotar certificates eventually took months. Revoking the certificates immediately after the hack was discovered would have caused the tax system and the judicial system to come to a grinding halt, causing major social disruption and economic damages, the Dutch Safety Board said in its report on the matter.

None of the involved bodies, including telecom regulator OPTA and Logius, the organization responsible for the Dutch government IT infrastructure, were prepared for the DigiNotar crisis, said the board. None of them had foreseen the risks involved when a Certificate Authority (CA) such as DigiNotar was compromised, and none of them realized that not all certificates could be revoked immediately, they added.

Government bodies depend too much on IT departments when it comes to the acquisition of certificates, and by doing this risk the adequate protection of digital communications, the board said. The Dutch Safety Board concluded that Logius in particular, and OPTA to a lesser extent, put insufficient effort into understanding the actual reliability of CAs, and relied too much on the judgment of auditing organizations.

To prevent similar incidents from happening in the future the safety board advised the current Minister of the Interior, Liesbeth Spies, to develop a program to create awareness within government organizations and their administrators. Government bodies should also be required to take responsibility for how they ensure digital security, the board advised.

In addition, government organizations should systematically comply with the NEN-ISO/IEC 27001 and 27002 information security standards, the board said. Also, the national and local governments should be prepared to deal with digital incidents and should be able to repair the damages caused by them, they added. Last but not least, the safety board advised the minister to implement a safer system for the issuing and use of SSL-certificates.

Another report issued on Thursday by the Public Order and Safety Inspectorate of the Ministry of Security and Justice came to a rather different conclusion, finding that the DigiNotar crisis was handled effectively by the government's crisis organization. When the hack was discovered in September 2011, the government responded quickly and recognized the possible consequences, the Inspectorate said on its website. The operational team that was created to deal with the crisis cooperated efficiently, and the Inspectorate also found that the National Crisis Center proved that it was able to facilitate and support crisis management in a substantive and practical manner.

The Inspectorate recommended that the Ministry of Security and Justice continue to invest in competent and permanent staffing of the government's crisis organization.

Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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