Posts Tagged online security

Heartbleed Bug – what is it and how does it affect you

I just spent several hours changing my passwords. Why? Because of this:


The Heartbleed Bug is a serious vulnerability in the popular OpenSSL cryptographic software library. This weakness allows stealing the information protected, under normal conditions, by the SSL/TLS encryption used to secure the Internet. SSL/TLS provides communication security and privacy over the Internet for applications such as web, email, instant messaging IM and some virtual private networks VPNs.

The Heartbleed bug allows anyone on the Internet to read the memory of the systems protected by the vulnerable versions of the OpenSSL software. This compromises the secret keys used to identify the service providers and to encrypt the traffic, the names and passwords of the users and the actual content. This allows attackers to eavesdrop on communications, steal data directly from the services and users and to impersonate services and users.

via Heartbleed Bug.

For businesses and institutions that have their own websites and servers (think banks, financial institutions, merchants from the majors like Amazon to the smaller online businesses), this is an


OpenSSL versions 1.0.1 through 1.0.1f contain a flaw in its implementation of the TLS/DTLS heartbeat functionality (RFC6520). This flaw allows an attacker to retrieve private memory of an application that uses the vulnerable OpenSSL libssl library in chunks of up to 64k at a time. Note that an attacker can repeatedly leverage the vulnerability to increase the chances that a leaked chunk contains the intended secrets.

via Vulnerability Note VU##720951 OpenSSL heartbeat extension read overflow discloses sensitive information Companies affected are listed on the above website, and include Amazon, Google and IBM.  I was alerted to this by way of Karl Denninger at Market-Ticker who says

This is extremely serious folks.

If your systems are vulnerable to this and Internet-facing you must assume that the private keys involved in your SSL-enabled applications have been compromised and are no longer secret.  This means that your site can be trivially spoofed and will appear to be legitimate to a client connecting to it even though it is not.

This is very, very bad.  You cannot simply upgrade OpenSSL and be done.  You must also either revoke and have re-issued or revoke and re-issue yourself all keys that were formerly issued and potentially exposed.  In addition the public CAs may be impacted as well since they have internet-facing services, which means that their keys may not be secure either.

This is truly major. Merchants and banks, to name just the most obvious, use SSL to secure transactions and other private transfers of data. From what I can gather, there is no way to know if the company’s servers have been hacked or not. But most will have to assume that their keys have been compromised. From the website:

Exploitation of this bug leaves no traces of anything abnormal happening to the logs…

Am I affected by the bug?

You are likely to be affected either directly or indirectly. OpenSSL is the most popular open source cryptographic library and TLS (transport layer security) implementation used to encrypt traffic on the Internet. Your popular social site, your company’s site, commerce site, hobby site, site you install software from or even sites run by your government might be using vulnerable OpenSSL. Many of online services use TLS to both to identify themselves to you and to protect your privacy and transactions. You might have networked appliances with logins secured by this buggy implementation of the TLS. Furthermore you might have client side software on your computer that could expose the data from your computer if you connect to compromised services.

How widespread is this?

Most notable software using OpenSSL are the open source web servers like Apache and nginx. The combined market share of just those two out of the active sites on the Internet was over 66% according to Netcraft’s April 2014 Web Server Survey. Furthermore OpenSSL is used to protect for example email servers (SMTP, POP and IMAP protocols), chat servers (XMPP protocol), virtual private networks (SSL VPNs), network appliances and wide variety of client side software. Fortunately many large consumer sites are saved by their conservative choice of SSL/TLS termination equipment and software. Ironically smaller and more progressive services or those who have upgraded to latest and best encryption will be affected most. Furthermore OpenSSL is very popular in client software and somewhat popular in networked appliances which have most inertia in getting updates.

Time to change those passwords. (For my posts on one password management program, click here.)

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Warning – don’t get Honan’d! logo

Brooks Duncan of just sent out an email to his subscribers with a link to the Wired story of Mat Honan:

In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.

Mat points out, “In many ways, this was all my fault. My accounts were daisy-chained together. Getting into Amazon let my hackers get into my Apple ID account, which helped them get into Gmail, which gave them access to Twitter.”

And Brooks suggests some ways to avoid suffering a similar fate. Most of these are tips that Brooks has been suggesting people to use for years, and many are included in his excellent guides to going paperless (Click here to read more about the Paperless Document Organization Guide   Diclosure – I belong to Brooks’ affiliate program; buy Brooks’ guides after clicking through here and you will be buying me a drink.)

Brooks points out, “even though this particular situation happened to a Mac user using Amazon, Google, and iCloud accounts, the hacks involved could happen with any online service.”

    1. First tip: Email.

      The center of many, many hacks is your e-mail account. You might think “I don’t care if someone reads my e-mail”, but that’s not the point — if someone can get in your e-mail, they can generate password resets for other online services that you use. (my emphasis)

      How to solve this? Use a password-generator that can create highly complex and unique passwords for you, and store them securely. I have used Access Manager for years, and am perfectly satisfied with it. It has a free version, but I coughed up for the professional version and find it well worth the money. It requires the Microsoft .NET Framework and only runs on Windows.

      Here’s Brooks suggestions for email security:

      1.  Use a super secure password for your e-mail account. Even better, use software like 1Password (that’s what I use) or LastPass to generate really secure passwords that you don’t even need to memorize.
      2. Use Two-Factor authentication in your e-mail. This is especially true if you use Google services. Macworld has a good article with how to set that up, even if you don’t use a Mac. (Personally, I found this article rather confusing; do you know a better overview of this?)
      3. In this case, because he used the same account for both his Apple and Google password reset accounts, he was extra vulnerable. It might be worth having those two totally separate.
    2. Next tip: iCloud: Brooks suggests that, if you use a Mac and iCloud, you turn off the option “Find my Mac”. He thinks the risk of someone accessing his Mac and wiping out his computer is higher than that of being unable to remote-erase his files on his Mac if he ever loses it. He also suggests encrypting your sensitive files (watch his video on how to do this). One thing I like about Brooks’ videos, as I’ve said before, is that the explanation is clear and doesn’t assume you know a whole lot of computer jargon.
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    3. Tip #3: backup your computer. Brooks has a video on this, too (watch in HD for best results).

He has 3 backups, one local, one off-site, and one in the cloud. Backup tips are included in Brooks’ excellent “going paperless” guides (Click here to read more about the Paperless Document Organization Guide)

If you are thinking of going paperless but have not yet taken the plunge, I do recommend you get Brooks’ FREE 7-part email course on going paperless. You can sign up for this free email course on Brooks’ home page at Try this first before buying any of his paperless guides.

Finally, let’s go back to Honan’s Wired article. Here he points to  a flaw in Amazon’s and Apple’s security systems. If you have any kind of customer account, but especially an Apple account and an Amazon account, you might want to read this:

But what happened to me exposes vital security flaws in several customer service systems, most notably Apple’s and Amazon’s. Apple tech support gave the hackers access to my iCloud account. Amazon tech support gave them the ability to see a piece of information — a partial credit card number — that Apple used to release information. In short, the very four digits that Amazon considers unimportant enough to display in the clear on the web are precisely the same ones that Apple considers secure enough to perform identity verification. The disconnect exposes flaws in data management policies endemic to the entire technology industry, and points to a looming nightmare as we enter the era of cloud computing and connected devices.


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