New OpenSSL Flaws Aren't a Heartbleed Repeat

NEWS ANALYSIS: The discovery and disclosure of seven new flaws offer proof that the open-source model works and that OpenSSL can be secured.

OpenSSL security

The lessons of Heartbleed have been learned well. The open-source OpenSSL Project disclosed and patched seven security updates on June 5, and the process was markedly different from the activity that led up to the disclosure of the Heartbleed flaw in April.

The Heartbleed flaw, perhaps one of the most widespread security vulnerabilities of the past decade, left hundreds of thousands of users and organizations at risk while fixes were rolled out. The security updates to OpenSSL—a widely used open-source crytographic library for implementing Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption—should be seen in a different light for a variety of reasons.

One of the biggest differences between the new set of flaws and the Heartbleed vulnerability has to do with disclosure. There was a gap in the disclosure process for the Heartbleed flaw that somehow gave preferential access only to Google and CloudFlare, while other organizations struggled to package the patch after the OpenSSL project made its disclosure.

That gap also left organizations at risk, and directly affected the Canada Revenue Agency, Canada's tax agency as an attacker used the Heartbleed flaw before a patch was deployed.

In contrast, the new set of OpenSSL flaws seems to have followed a more orderly and disciplined disclosure process. This isn't just a one-off bug fix; the OpenSSL project on June 5 patched seven flaws that were privately and responsibly disclosed to the project over the last several months.

That's how security is supposed to work. Researchers find flaws, report them privately, the vendor (or in this case the open-source project) fixes them, and a patch is out for everyone before the flaw is publicly disclosed.

While the disclosure process for the June 5 OpenSSL flaws was significantly different from the one for Heartbleed, it still wasn't quite perfect and at least one open-source operating system vendor was not properly informed.

"Most other operating system vendors have patches available, but that is because they were (obviously) given a heads-up to prepare them over the last few days," OpenBSD founder Theo de Raadt wrote in a mailing list posting. "OpenBSD/LibreSSL did not receive any heads-up from OpenSSL."

In the wake of the Heartbleed vulnerability, the OpenBSD project actually forked OpenSSL into the LibreSSL project.

In de Raadt's view, his projects were intentionally left out. Whether or not that is accurate, the simple fact is that, for the most part, disclosure did work this time around in a manner that keeps the Internet safe.

Going a step further, some that argued in the wake of Heartbleed that open-source software itself is not to be trusted and is not secure. The new OpenSSL vulnerabilities prove the opposite. One of the longstanding premises for open-source security is that, because the code is open, there is the potential for many different sets of eyes to look at it and examine it for vulnerabilities.

The developer responsible for committing the code that triggered the Heartbleed flaw, Robin Seggelmann, coincidentally is the same developer that is being blamed for at least one of the new OpenSSL flaws disclosed on June 5. CVE-2014-0195, a Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS) Fragment Out-of-Bounds Write flaw, is also due to code written by Seggelmann.

"OpenSSL is an open-source project. The 'many eyes' that look at this code failed to catch this bug, but a new breed of individuals are looking at this code … especially at Seggelmann's code," Brian Gorenc, manager of the Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) at Hewlett-Packard wrote in a blog post. "This code is now known for having vulnerabilities. There is blood in the water."

Another thing that has changed for OpenSSL since Heartbleed surfaced is that there is money on the table to find and fix flaws. HP's ZDI pays security researchers for their vulnerability disclosures.

The Linux Foundation's Core Infrastructure Initiative (CII) now has $5.4 million in funding raised in response to Heartbleed. CII is funding efforts, including OpenSSL, to help improve security. One of the CII-funded initiatives is an audit of OpenSSL by the Open Crypto Audit Project (OCAP), which has only just begun.

In the post-Heartbleed era, there will be more OpenSSL security updates, and that's a good thing. Open-source security isn't about pretending we live in a world without vulnerabilities; it's about finding the vulnerabilities that exist and fixing them in a responsible manner, just like OpenSSL is now doing.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.