Skip to main content

How Heartbleed bug weakened everyone's online safety

By Chester Wisniewski
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Researchers found a bug that could make public your private information online
  • Chester Wisniewski: A simple mistake in open-source computer code is responsible
  • All of us rely on the volunteer work that goes into open-source code, author says
  • He says companies and people need to realize we're all in this together

Editor's note: Chester Wisniewski is a senior security adviser at Sophos Inc., Canada. He researches computer security and privacy issues and is a regular contributor to the Naked Security blog. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- This week, researchers from Google and the Finnish security consulting group Codenomicon disclosed a bug, called Heartbleed, in OpenSSL, one of the most ubiquitous encryption software packages in use on the Internet.

Two thirds of the web sites and applications that allow you to do online banking or communicate privately through e-mail, voice or instant message use OpenSSL to protect your communications.

That is why a bug in OpenSSL that can render the private information you are transmitting across the wire visible to attackers is a very big deal.

The bug itself is a simple, honest mistake in the computer code that was intended to reduce the computing resources encryption consumes. The problem is that this bug made it past the quality assurance tests and has been deployed across the Internet for nearly two years.

Chester Wisniewski
Chester Wisniewski

This brings into question all the secure conversations we thought we were having on affected services over that time. A big deal indeed.

How does something like this happen? Aren't there a lot of people looking at this code? It is open source after all; anyone can take a peek.

Usually the availability of source code to public scrutiny results in applications being more secure and one could argue that is what happened here. Researchers at Google were looking carefully at the code and discovered this mistake. Unfortunately, that discovery came two years too late.

Fortunately, most major Web services have already applied fixes to the affected Web servers and services. The bad news is that smaller websites as well as many companies' products that rely on OpenSSL may linger for many more years without a fix.

To a degree, we are at the mercy of the website operators and companies who make security products to apply these fixes to protect us.

Some are suggesting that everyone should change all their passwords. While it is never a bad idea to change your passwords, increase their strength and ensure they are sufficiently unique, you should only do this after confirming the site has been fixed.

Too little attention is paid to the critical nature of the free software that keeps the Internet moving. We expect this army of volunteers to write and maintain much of the code that enables our fast and free Internet, all without payment, without support, in essence without a thought.

Recently, companies like Google have begun making an effort to rectify this situation through programs like Patch Rewards. Google offers to pay researchers to find bugs in commonly used open source software, including OpenSSL, so the community can work together to fix flaws more quickly, resulting in a safer Internet.

All of us have come to rely on the Internet socially, politically and economically. The billions of dollars a year being made by the tech giants would not be possible without the millions of donated hours that maintain free and open software like OpenSSL, Linux, Apache Web server, and Postfix mail server.

This is a fight for our privacy, security and our freedom to communicate.
Chester Wisniewski

Businesses, government and individuals all have something to offer that can help. This isn't a battle between Windows, Mac and Linux or some battle between free and commercial software. This is a fight for our privacy, security and our freedom to communicate.

For some of us what we can offer is coding talent, others financial support, and still others can test software more thoroughly to ensure the reliability and security of the resulting code.

The most important thing is to recognize the importance of our collective security and to realize that in the end we are all tangled together online. A weakness in one can affect us all.

Follow CNN Opinion on Twitter.

Join the conversation on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT