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Could a third of world's popular websites be vulnerable to DROWN Attack

Posted on Mar 03, 2016.

Security researchers have discovered a vulnerability in secure websites. The vulnerability allows attackers to intercept and decrypt data transmitted between a user and the server.

The research team, made up of security experts from Google, public universities and other various open-source projects have said the attack relies on an old piece of flawed code. DROWN stands for “Decrypting RSA with Obsolete and Weakened eNcryption”, the exploit could affect up to a third of all websites which use Secure Socket Layers v2 (SSLv2). The SSL is the reason for the ‘secure’ in https. According to the researchers, Yahoo, BuzzFeed, Flikr and could all be susceptible, along with a large number of the worlds top 10,000 websites. This has the potential for credit card date, passwords and other sensitive data to be compromised. 

security drown attack

The team drew parallels between past exploits which have been discovered. The origin of this attack is the same as Freak, Poodle and Logjam. During the 1990’s export laws required US companies to use weaker encryption for products exported overseas. Although these restrictions were lifted, the damage has been done and remains today. 

Nadia Heninger, an assistant computer and information science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the DROWN attack research team said “These three attacks targeting different flaws from export-grade cryptography from the 90s are the best natural experiment we have about the long-term damage to security that can come from deliberately weakening cryptography,”

The export cryptography laws of the 90’s, akin to the current dispute between Apple and the FBI over security features employed to protect iPhone data, was a result of the “crypto wars”, fought between the public and private sectors. The US government has usually been concerned that criminals may “go dark”, whilst security experts maintain that the ability to create vulnerabilities and backdoors that remain in the hand of one group, authority or agency, no matter how well-intentioned is impossible.

“I hope that the lessons we can draw from previous attempts to backdoor crypto get through to policymakers, who need to be including technologists in decisions about cryptography and security regulations,” she said.


“In the context of the current debates about backdooring cryptography and lawful access to encrypted data, I think there has been too much focus on immediate political context and not enough focus on the long-term technological ramifications of some of the proposals.

“Empirically, it seems to be incredibly difficult to implement back-doored cryptography securely, so these designs result in even more vulnerabilities present in common software.”

The DROWN attack will only work on a server which is compatible with an older version of secure sockets layer. SSLv2. More recent versions do not use the weakened encryption algorithms. Altho many servers retain the capability to use the particular protocol if requested to do so.

A member of the research team called this a “one bad apple spoils the bunch” situation. When you take into account the reemergence of government pushes towards tighter encryption controls, and possibility of new encryption wars looming, the phrase, with regards to Apples position, fighting the FBI over iPhone security, would seem rather fitting.  

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