Heartbleed SSL Encryption Vulnerability Requires Quick Attention

NEWS ANALYSIS: There are steps you can take to make sure that your critical information is protected from the Heartbleed encryption flaw and to confirm whether you were at risk in the first place.

According to our report on the discovery of a significant vulnerability to the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption service as it's implemented in some versions of Linux, an exploit could reveal up to 64 kilobytes of memory in the affected server.

The good news is that the OpenSSL Project issued a fix almost immediately, and passed it out as an update to Linux distributors. The bad news is that this vulnerability has been around for two years.

There's more good news: There's no evidence that this vulnerability was ever exploited. But there's more bad news, too: Because of the way this vulnerability works, we might not see evidence even if it had been exploited. Just how serious is this?

Tatu Ylönen, Inventor of SSH encryption and CEO of the SSH security protocol, said that the problem is potentially bad. "This is an extremely serious vulnerability in OpenSSL," Ylönen said in an email from his home in Helsinki, Finland.

"An attacker can use it to obtain the encryption keys used by a web site, allowing an attacker or spy agency to read all communications. It can practically be used to obtain the server private key used for securing the server and communications to it, essentially breaching the certificates used for protecting the web site, which in turn allows decrypting past sessions as well as performing man-in-the-middle attacks (including banking fraud and identity theft) in most cases."

Ylönen said that about two-thirds of the world's Websites use the encryption library affected by the vulnerability, which is OpenSSL 1.0.1. Any of those sites could have been compromised. He said that these include major commerce sites, social networking and banking sites.

Because the encryption keys themselves may have been stolen from compromised Websites, the importance of keeping keys safe is underscored. Unless the keys were kept secure and encrypted, the chance that they could be stolen during a breach is high, according to Richard Mould, vice president of Strategy for Thales e-Security.

"Once again the importance of sound key management has been brought into sharp focus," Mould told eWEEK. "The Heartbleed bug found in OpenSSL, one of the most common means of encrypting data on the internet, increases the risk that encryption keys can be stolen. An attacker that can access these keys can decrypt any data that has been previously encrypted using those keys and probably any future data until each key is changed. Updating keys is expensive and time consuming and the impact of a loss can be very damaging."

Ylönen said that once the SSL encryption had been broken, it's likely that passwords normally protected by SSL had also been compromised.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...