The online community is still reeling from the discovery of what might just be the biggest security flaw in the history of the Internet. It's been around for years, thousands of websites may have been compromised, it's very difficult to tell if an attacker has exploited the bug... and, according to one news outlet, the National Security Agency learned of its existence at least two years ago, but they didn't tell anyone, leaving American citizens vulnerable to identity and data theft while the NSA exploited flaw for its own purposes.
The NSA flatly denies the latter accusation, which was made in a Bloomberg News report on Friday. The security flaw itself, now known as "Heartbleed," was by all accounts introduced by accident through the work of a single programmer at the end of 2011... literally one minute before midnight on New Year's Eve, to be precise. He was one of many programmers contributing to an "open source" project - a popular method for developing free or inexpensive software through volunteer collaboration, although open-sourcing might grow considerably less popular because of the current crisis.
Heartbleed is such a big deal that it has its own website, dedicated to explaining how it works and providing suggestions for how to deal with it. Heartbleed is not a virus - it's a security vulnerability in a crucial bit of Internet software known as SSL, which stands for Secure Sockets Layer. It's the software that encrypts Web traffic from secure sites, including banks, credit card companies, online merchants, and online email systems such as Gmail. SSL connections essentially establish a secure, private "phone call" between your computer and sensitive websites.
If you placed such a secure phone call to someone, you wouldn't want the phone to automatically hang up if there were a few moments of silence during your conversation. SSL handles that with code that establishes a "heartbeat" to keep the connection open between systems, even if one of the systems goes idle for a little while. The security flaw is part of this heartbeat code, which is why it earned the memorable nickname "Heartbleed."
Hackers who understand how the Heartbleed vulnerability works can use it to pull very small chunks of data out of targeted systems, like a heart that leaks a few drops of blood every time it thumps. The problem is that a hacker can keep harvesting these little bits of data, over and over again, until a sizable amount of information has been poached from secure communications. The information intercepted in this manner can include the names and passwords of people using the system. In other words, if the Heartbleed flaw is used to attack an email server, the names and passwords of all the email users might eventually be compromised. The attacker might even be able to intercept the administrative passwords for the targeted system, potentially granting unlimited access to its data. It's just like tapping into a phone line and listening to a sensitive conversation.
Unfortunately, the affected SSL code is used by a huge number of online systems - some estimates say over half a million. A new version of SSL that fixes this vulnerability has been distributed, but it will take time to implement. Meanwhile, it's very difficult to tell which systems might have been raided for passwords, because these attacks don't leave much evidence in their wake. And changing your passwords as a precaution might not help, because if you're dealing with a system that has come under Heartbleed assault, the hackers might quickly steal your new password, too.
There is more information about which systems may have been compromised, and security precautions that can be taken, at the Heartbleed.com website. The problem may also have migrated into the firmware of some computer networking hardware, and the Droid smartphone operating system. There's no compelling evidence that any data has been stolen through Heartbleed yet. It wasn't discovered by researchers until last week, after running on some affected systems for two years. It's possible hackers never found it... but today came allegations that the U.S. government did.
According to sources for the controversial Bloomberg News report from Friday, the NSA found Heartbleed shortly after it was introduced, but decided to keep it a secret, and may have used it for their own purposes, rather than issuing a warning to the public. Although Bloomberg quotes a few cyber-security experts and claims to have several inside sources, the bombshell paragraph in the article is not directly sourced: "Putting the Heartbleed bug in its arsenal, the NSA was able to obtain passwords and other basic data that are the building blocks of the sophisticated hacking operations at the core of its mission, but at a cost. Millions of ordinary users were left vulnerable to attack from other nations’ intelligence arms and criminal hackers."
The agency categorically denied this report in a statement: "NSA was not aware of the recently identified vulnerability in OpenSSL, the so-called Heartbleed vulnerability, until it was made public in a private-sector cybersecurity report. Reports that say otherwise are wrong."
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