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Estonia Offers Recommendations in the Light of eID Vulnerability

Estonian Information System Authority reviews the recent crypto vulnerability and offers recommendations to improve readiness for similar cases. The ROCA (Return of the Coppersmith Attack) cryptographic vulnerability became known in the autumn of 2017 and is a weakness that would have eventually allowed the private key of a key pair to be calculated from the public key in affected devices. In the Estonian electronic identity scheme, it made it theoretically possible to impersonate a user and sign or decrypt documents.

ROCA Vulnerability and eID: Lessons Learned (202.9 KB, PDF)

While Estonia is unique in the breath of the ecosystem reliant on digital identity, Estonia’s 800,000 ID cards with the security flaw represent a negligible share of ROCA’s global impact of at least 1 billion affected chips. The Infineon chips that led to the vulnerability in the Estonian ID cards are used in driving licenses, passports, access cards and elsewhere. Chips with the same flaw are known to have been used in identity documents in Slovakia, Austria, Poland, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Italy, Taiwan, Spain, Brazil and Malaysia. The vulnerability also affected Trusted platform modules (TPMs) at least in Lenovo, HP, Toshiba and Fujitsu computers as well as security tokens or authentication devices used for virtual private network (VPN) access, email security and other critical security operations. A range of plastic chip-and-pin plastic cards was also impacted.

Estonia was also unique in that it had built the remote updating capability allowing users to renew their certificates from any computer connected to the internet and equipped with an ID card reader. Furthermore, Estonia had the possibility to suspend the affected certificates while other countries revoked the impacted certificates. These allowed the users to fix the problem without major hassle, maintaining trust as well as availability and use of e-services.

The analysis reviews the solution, offers a chronology and describes the global as well as Estonian impact before offering the following recommendations:

  1. Information sharing and vulnerability disclosure: The anticipated sources of information – international notification mechanisms and notification from vendors – failed Estonia this time while information provided by an international group of researchers allowed to address the issue. It was felt that the notification mechanisms are designed for incidents with demonstrated impact and thus not well suited to address vulnerabilities in earlier stages of crises. The case allows to revisit both supply chain management and notification mechanisms. In particular, EU Member states might want to compare interpretation and the emerging practice of Article 19 of the eIDAS regulation. Overall, the possible gaps in notification mechanisms have to be assessed and national practice of international risk and vulnerability sharing addressed in a joint manner.
  2. Risk management and continuity planning: In Estonia, ID card is means of authentication and electronic signing for close to 5,000 public and private sector services. In most of these cases, the option of face-to-face authentication and handwritten signatures is no longer an acceptable alternative. Therefore, electronic alternatives to the ID card are being developed and integrated into services. For other governments and private companies, this serves as a useful case of risk management and continuity planning. Even with remote updating and certificate suspension being available, Estonia would have been much more severely impacted if there were not several crypto libraries embedded in the firmware of the ID card.
  3. Role of governments in introducing innovation: Government agencies constantly face the dilemma of developing technology in-house versus procuring innovation from the market. Few governments possess the entire necessary skill sets; most of the competence lies in the private sector. With globally used technologies, governments cannot fully solve problems inherent in technologies they are merely a customer of. In addition to supply chain management and business continuity planning, governments can also pool their influence in developing, procuring and certifying technology.
  4. Openness: Risks arising from vulnerabilities in fundamental digital infrastructure cannot be managed without the involvement of the stakeholders, including the public and the media. Broad-based cooperation between national, international and corporate stakeholders with different expectations, roles and levels of readiness is a sine qua non. Furthermore, only such cooperation can lay basis for long-term solutions that allow overcoming problems not yet seen beyond the horizon.

Estonia has conducted a thorough lessons learned process to improve security and kick-started the international conversation at conference analyzing the case.

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