Think tank challenges Heartbleed handwringing

A think tank opinion piece that claims the threat from the Heartbleed bug is overblown has sparked a debate among researchers over the seriousness of the OpenSSL flaw.

[Hackers prepping for OpenSSL Heartbleed attacks]

In his column entitled "Heartbleed: Cybersecurity as Melodrama," James Andrew Lewis, director and senior fellow of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, argued Tuesday that cybercriminals would likely choose a much easier, and more effective, way than Heartbleed to steal valuable assets from companies.

"There are several steps between compromise and money," Lewis said. "Cybercriminals, a professional lot, use the most efficient techniques. These are people looking to make millions of dollars."

Heartbleed would not easily translate into the "industrial-scale crime" hackers seek, Lewis said. Examples would include the Target breach last year that led to the theft of millions of credit- and debit-card numbers. Such breaches typically occur through email phishing attacks aimed directly at the company, or in the case of Target, one of its suppliers.

In a recent Heartbleed challenge, one researcher had to send 2.5 million requests against a test server to get its private encryption key, while another participant had to make 100,000 requests. In Lewis' opinion, such an exploit would not be cost effective for most cybercriminals.

"They engage in industrial-scale crime, not piecework hacking of individual accounts," Lewis said. "Stealing your password, accessing your account, getting your credit card information, and then figuring out how to do this hundreds of thousands of times and monetize the date [sic] is too much work."

Joni Brennan, executive director of the Kantara Initiative, which is focused on developing better digital identity management, agreed that there is a "sensational element" to the Heartbleed media coverage.

"Likely this story has more relevance from the perspective of mass surveillance and vulnerabilities that underpin the Internet as a whole versus criminal behavior," Brennan said. "As the author notes, criminals tend to be much more sophisticated and targeted."

Among experts contacted, Brennan was in the minority. The others believed Heartbleed deserved all the attention it was getting from software and website developers and hardware manufacturers, all scrambling to patch products.

Researchers also pointed out that the Canada Revenue Agency, the country's tax-collection agency, has recently blamed Heartbleed for the loss of tax-related information. In addition, the BBC reported Monday that the leading U.K. site for parents, Mumsnet, had user passwords and personal messages stolen by cyber thieves who took advantage of the vulnerability.

"If you don't patch everything that's vulnerable and you don't fix everything you find, you're destined to lose," Mark Hoit, vice chancellor for information technology at North Carolina State University, said.

Critics of Lewis' piece also pointed out that a hacker exploiting the Heartbleed bug can steal data without leaving a trace, so a company can get hit over and over again and never know it.

[How to defend against the OpenSSL Heartbleed flaw]

"The capability to use Heartbleed to capture encryption keys and decrypt SSL is not something that should casually be dismissed as the author of this article seems too," Paul Henry, senior instructor for the SANS Institute, said. "HeartBleed is an issue that should be top of mind from a risk mitigation perspective for all organizations on both the server and client side."

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags TargetOpenSSLsecurityHeartbleedJames Andrew LewisSecurity Leadershipdebate

More about Andrew Corporation (Australia)BBC Worldwide AustralasiaBrennan ITSANS Institute

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Antone Gonsalves

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place