What you need to know about Heartbleed and OpenSSL

You know that little padlock icon you look for to ensure your Web traffic is encrypted and secure? It turns out that you might not be as secure as you think thanks to a vulnerability that was accidentally introduced into the code of OpenSSL.

Here are the important things you need to know about this very serious security and privacy issue:

What is SSL?

SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer. It is an industry standard technology used for establishing a secure connection between two points, and encrypting the traffic that passes between them. In theory, SSL protects the data passed between a Web server and browser from being accessed or intercepted.

"In practice, we need to think also about its use case on printers, wireless access points, routers, switches as all of these devices and others offer up a way to administrate the device via a browser interface," claims TK Keanini, CTO of Lancope.

What is the issue with OpenSSL?

"In Dec 2011, a bug was introduced in OpenSSL that has been in the code train up until a few days ago," explains Andrew Storms, senior director of DevOps for CloudPassage. "That bug allows a remote, unauthenticated attacker the ability to read memory on the server which could include the server's private key."

The flaw affects all versions of OpenSSL over the past few years and allows a malicious attacker to steal information ostensibly protected by SSL/TLS encryption under normal conditions.

How serious is the flaw in OpenSSL?

In a word, "Very".

"Being in possession of the key would allow the attacker to decrypt private communications and/or stand up a site that impersonates the real site," says Storms. "This is probably one of the more serious bugs I've seen in my 15 years of working in the security industry."

Lamar Bailey, director of security research for Tripwire, agrees. "This is the biggest security issue I've seen in years. So many popular sites are vulnerable to this attack--it really affects a huge portion of the Internet. Successful attacks can be used to steal all kinds of data that was otherwise thought to be secure like private keys, user names and passwords."

Lancope's Keanini declares, "It is not an overstatement to say that this bug is the biggest in 2014 because of the wide spread use of OpenSSL in network security."

According to Kaspersky Lab, "Although OpenSSL is used in *nix and BSD operating systems, the danger cannot be underestimated. It is believed that up to 66 percent of sites use Apache and nginx Web servers which in turn use OpenSSL."

How can businesses / users protect themselves?

Tripwire's Bailey stresses, "Anyone running a vulnerable version of OpenSSL should upgrade immediately and then create new private keys. There's no way to tell if you have been attacked so you should assume the worst. This should be at the top of every IT and security teams' to-do list this week."

According to Andrew Storms, organizations should also rotate keys on all affected systems. "This will mean you'll need to regenerate SSL certs and get them signed by your certificate authority."

Keanini warns businesses not to focus only on external-facing servers, or even on only their own servers. "They should also check internal systems as malware is sure to use this method to harvest credentials. Also, make a list of business partners, make sure you check them and educate them on the seriousness of this bug in their IT infrastructure."

Should everyone change all of their passwords?

The answer is, "Yes"...but maybe not just yet.

Everyone should reset all passwords because there is no way to know which, if any, have been compromised. With an issue that affects virtually every site and service on the Internet, it's fair to assume your passwords were potentially compromised. However, there is little point in rushing to do it before the sites have patched and updated, otherwise your new passwords will also be exposed to the same issue.

As Andrew Storms puts it, "Whether or not you need to change your password due to this specific bug is a personal decision. But changing your password on a regular basis is a good idea."

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