Report: NSA secretly exploited devastating Heartbleed bug for years (Update: NSA denies)

Brad Chacos
14 April, 2014
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You had to see this one coming.

This week, it came to light that a small error in the open-source OpenSSL implementation of the SSL encryption protocol opened a gaping hole in the security of hundreds of thousands websites and networking equipment across the net – and that hole had been wide open and exploitable for years. Passwords could be easily grabbed. User names matching those passwords could be easily grabbed. Heck, user data could be easily grabbed. The ’Heartbleed’ moniker attached to the devastating bug seemed all too apt.

And on Friday afternoon, Bloomberg reported that the US National Security Agency (NSA) has been aware of and actively exploiting the Heartbleed bug for at least two full years, citing “two people familiar with the matter”.

Ironically, the report comes on the same day that the US Department of Homeland Security issued a warning about Heartbleed, stating, “While there have not been any reported attacks or malicious incidents involving this particular vulnerability confirmed at this time, it is still possible that malicious actors in cyberspace could exploit unpatched systems.”

The allegations are sure to cause an uproar in the security community, which is still struggling to come to terms with the revelations revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Leaked NSA documents provided to reporters by Snowden have revealed an agency casting a wide – and often domestic – surveillance dragnet, spying on American emails and web searches, gobbling up metadata from smartphones en masse, and even tapping into the internal communication infrastructures of internet giants like Yahoo and Google.

A September Snowden-supplied revelation revealed that the NSA can easily defeat many of today’s encryption technologies, and in an aside that now seems precognisant, the SSL protocol was then rumoured to be a particular favoured target for the Agency.

NSA representatives initially declined to comment to Bloomberg about the report. But an hour after this article was first published it was updated, following this tweet from the NSA’s Twitter account:

What can you do?

While the security of open-source software has been debated in the wake of Heartbleed’s devastation, the web is already recovering from the bug’s widespread mayhem. There’s already an OpenSSL fix for Heartbleed, which many website administrators are scrambling to implement.

Given the nature of the Heartbleed bug – which reveals information stored in a web server’s RAM, as wonderfully summed up by XKCD – you actually don’t want to change your passwords or even visit sites that were vulnerable, but have yet to be fixed. Be sure to read PCWorld’s comprehensive guide to staying safe from Heartbleed, and check out our coverage of sites known to have been affected by the bug.

by Brad Chacos, PC World


One Comment

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  1. AussieMacUser says:

    It would be interesting to know if others have been able to exploit the Heartbleed weakness. While the NSA is getting the spotlight right now, what about large corporations, or even foreign governments? (I am sure that the NSA doesn’t have all the smart people in the world).

    The NSA can make us nervous, but voters have some chance at bringing them back into line. But what measures can be brought against other exploiters? And what would they be looking for?

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