IT manager heartbleed data center

Heartbleed prognosis: Long, laborious discovery, recovery

As the initial shock from the April 7 revelation of the OpenSSL Heartbleed bug receded, it was replaced with a sense of foreboding over what the long-term impact will be. No one, it seemed, was willing to cast this as just another hiccup in the evolution of online security.

“I’ve been around a long time in infosec, and this is one of the scariest bugs I’ve seen, period,” said Jake Williams, a technical analyst with the Department of Defense, with more than a decade of experience and a certified instructor with the SANS Institute. “It’s not a joke.”

The reason is that Heartbleed’s impact is so wide ranging, he said during an online presentation on the bug. The worry is not so much for major IT vendors but for smaller organizations, those who may have installed a virtual private network (VPN) concentrator six years ago on a shoestring budget, “and it’s still running.”

“This is much scarier than the Conficker worm, much scarier than Stuxnet,” he said. “It makes the Apple GoTo bug look like a software feature.”

The Apple GoTo bug, revealed earlier this year and caused by a coding mistake, allowed an attacker to potentially get around Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) encryption in Apple’s Mavericks and iOS operating systems and steal data.

“I think it’s as bad as everyone is now saying,” said Jerry Irvine, chief information officer of Prescient Solutions and a member of the National Cyber Security Task Force.“In fact, 60 to 70 percent of the devices that create SSL communication links are likely affected by this bug.”

Government agencies that communicate with third-party private or public-sector organizations  and who believe their communications have been encrypted and secure, now have to come to grips with the possibility that their communications can potentially be decrypted and shared with non-authorized individuals, he said.

The Heartbleed bug affects systems that use versions 1.0.1 through 1.0.1f, as well as the 1.0.2 beta version, of the OpenSSL cryptographic software library. It allows anyone who can get to an affected device to retrieve the private memory of an application on that device in 64K chunks and thereby to compromise the private keys used to identify service providers and encrypt data traffic.

US-CERT, in an alert published the day after the Heartbleed bug was made public, said the range of information that could be retrieved includes:

  • Primary key material (secret keys)
  • Secondary key material (user names and passwords used by vulnerable services)
  • Protected content (sensitive data used by vulnerable services)
  • Collateral (memory addresses and content that can be leveraged to bypass exploit mitigations)

Reaction from government agencies immediately after the first public announcement of the bug was relatively muted. North of the U.S. border, the Canadian revenue agency said it was temporarily shutting down its online services to try and fix affected programs and gave people extra time to file their taxes.

There were no similar announcements from U.S. agencies, though several issued statements saying they weren’t affected and were operating normally or advising organizations they do business with to take extra precautions.

A fixed 1.0.1g version of OpenSSL was also released on April 7, but it became increasingly clear that the job for users and IT managers could be a long and laborious one to get their own systems fixed. Email servers, desktop PCs, Android phones and even firewalls could be affected.

Users of OpenSSL will have to reinstall their applications to take account of the new patched version, Irvine said, and at the same time they’ll have to delete encryption keys and recreate them. However, he added, individual user IDs and passwords will also have to be changed, since simply reinstalling the applications and encryption key doesn’t change the IDs and passwords, which may also have been compromised.

For large organizations, that will take time. Since no one knows just how many systems are affected, that means there are potentially large holes in the security of services that organizations use each day to do business. An even bigger worry is how long those holes may already have been used by attackers to steal data.

The bug may have been introduced into the OpenSSL code as far back as December 2011 and available to attackers since March 2012, when the 1.0.1 version was published. Since the design of the OpenSSL code itself makes attacks through the Heartbleed bug all but invisible, it will also be very hard to track any incursions that happened over that time.

The hope of many is that, since the bug wasn’t noticed by friendly examiners until recently, that may also be true of people with bad intent. But some security researchers claim to have found evidence that attackers have been aware of it for some time.

What organizations cannot afford to do is to “take it lying down,” Williams told his audience. It’s going to take a lot of work to put things right, and we may need people to go beyond the usual. “If you’d asked me a week ago that I was going to recommend that we train users on how to check the issue date of SSL certificates, I’d have looked at you as though you were nuts,” he said. “And now I’m up here recommending it. We need to exercise caution, and the sooner the better.”

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