Why Bud­weiser’s ad is a big risk in Trump’s USA.

Odd mes­sages on Web browsers might be due to a sim­ple main­te­nance prob­lem

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY HAYLEY TSUKAYAMA hayley.tsukayama@wash­post.com More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/news/theswitch

Some visi­tors to the White House web­site have re­ported see­ing mes­sages that carry scary warn­ings. A mes­sage from Google Chrome warns: “At­tack­ers might be try­ing to steal your in­for­ma­tion from mes­sages.white­house.gov, for ex­am­ple pass­words, mes­sages or credit cards.”

Wash­ing­ton Post staffers ran into sim­i­lar mes­sages on Mi­crosoft’s Edge browser, Ap­ple’s Sa­fari and Mozilla’s Fire­fox browser. Some Twit­ter users ex­pe­ri­enced the same thing:

“A bit con­cerned,” @brad­hoshaw­mu­sic wrote. “When I vis­ited the http:// pe­ti­tions.white­house.gov site, @AVGFree kept warn­ing me of threats. #Para­noia #Rus­sianHack­ers?”

See­ing that sort of lan­guage on your screen doesn’t in­spire con­fi­dence, to say the least. But, ac­cord­ing to cy­ber­se­cu­rity pro­fes­sion­als, the mes­sages don’t seem to be prompted by an at­tack. In fact, they are not ob­vi­ously linked to any­thing ne­far­i­ous at all; it’s prob­a­bly be­cause of a sim­ple main­te­nance over­sight.

The White House did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Ex­perts told The Post that the mes­sages are ap­pear­ing be­cause the site’s se­cu­rity cer­tifi­cate — or, very sim­ply put, the thing that ver­i­fies that a site is what it says it is — isn’t valid.

It ap­pears that the White House’s equip­ment is not con­fig­ured cor­rectly, and the old cer­tifi­cate was re­voked or al­lowed to ex­pire with­out be­ing re­placed, said Ken­neth White of the Open Crypto Au­dit project, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing cy­ber­se­cu­rity. There are per­haps hun­dreds of pieces of equip­ment and servers that need to be just right to keep the White House site up and run­ning cor­rectly, he said, so it would be easy to miss some­thing.

“I want to dis­suade any no­tion of this be­ing cloak and dag­ger, or there be­ing any sort of ma­li­cious in­tent,” White said. “This is al­most cer­tainly an in­no­cent mis­take.”

So that’s the good news: There’s no in­di­ca­tion there was a ma­li­cious at­tack. Nor does it ap­pear to be tied to the re­cent tran­si­tion of power at 1600 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave. Ac­cord­ing to White, records in­di­cate that the cer­tifi­cate was re­voked by the com­pany that is­sues cer­tifi­cates in May 2016 — in other words, long be­fore the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion oc­cu­pied its cur­rent of­fices. (A sim­i­lar mes­sage ap­peared in 2015 on the same day the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion held a cy­ber­se­cu­rity sum­mit.)

White sus­pects that peo­ple are see­ing the up­dates more fre­quently now be­cause of re­cent browser up­dates. Some browsers, in­clud­ing Chrome, have in­creased their own se­cu­rity mea­sures re­gard­ing se­cu­rity cer­tifi­cates. That may ex­plain why not every­one sees the same mes­sage, or peo­ple only see it in cer­tain browsers.

The bad news is that this means at least parts of the White House’s web­site — such as mes­sages.white­house.gov — aren’t se­cure at the mo­ment. A valid cer­tifi­cate is a guar­an­tee of trust. With­out that, visi­tors to the site lose their warn­ing that some­thing could be wrong.

“With an in­valid cer­tifi­cate, any­one can mon­i­tor your traf­fic, see what you’re read­ing even if you’re not log­ging in and see which pages [you’re] spend­ing time on,” said Ge­orge Aveti­sov, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the firm HYPR Bio­met­ric Se­cu­rity. He also said that if the most vis­i­ble parts of the White House’s site aren’t be­ing prop­erly mon­i­tored, it raises ques­tions about some of the more tech­ni­cal parts as well. In the mean­time, he said, “don’t go to white­house.gov un­til they fix that cer­tifi­cate.”

But Rob Gra­ham, a cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert at Er­rata Se­cu­rity, said that avoid­ing the site would be a lit­tle ex­treme. “While this may be true in a gen­eral sense, I would dis­pute that in this case,” he said. “Be­ing in­valid is not au­to­mat­i­cally the prob­lem.”

Avesti­sov said he hopes that an ex­pected cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­ec­u­tive or­der from Pres­i­dent Trump, which is likely to in­clude pro­vi­sions to en­cour­age the gov­ern­ment to adopt in­dus­try-stan­dard se­cu­rity mea­sures, will pre­vent mis­takes like this.

“The root prob­lem in the gov­ern­ment,” Avesti­sov said, “is that they have a lot of legacy sys­tems — there are places in the gov­ern­ment that still run Win­dows XP, even though it’s not sup­ported any­more. There is no uni­fied ap­proach to cy­ber­se­cu­rity.”

Ex­perts say a mes­sage that some peo­ple have seen while view­ing the White House web­site is prob­a­bly not tied to a cy­ber­at­tack or the tran­si­tion of power.

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