This year, the technology world was taken by storm by one of the most damaging vulnerabilities seen in recent memory. The bug, dubbed Heartbleed, put a range of Web resources and systems at risk. While the issue has since been patched, many experts have noted that this event was a wake up call for the industry, and organizations as well as individual users need to work to prevent this type of weakness from happening again.
What exactly is Heartbleed?
According to Heartbleed.com, a website established by Codenomicon to spread awareness and information about the bug, Heartbleed is a significant weakness discovered in a widely used OpenSSL cryptographic software library. The issue – which was only recently discovered, but has been present for years – enables cybercriminals to steal data safeguarded by the affected SSL software. This includes sensitive information in Web applications, email and instant messages, and certain virtual private networks.
"The Heartbleed bug allows anyone on the Internet to read the memory of the systems protected by the vulnerable versions of the OpenSSL software," the website stated. "This compromises the secret keys used to identify the service providers and to encrypt 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."
This is a serious vulnerability, and impacted a wide range of vendors and individual users, not to mention businesses that utilized the vulnerable SSL encryption to protect sensitive company information.
Why was Heartbleed such a big deal?
Because the Heartbleed bug affected such a wide range of systems and information, it was a very serious issue within the industry. However, ZDNet contributor Stilgherrian noted that factor allowing Heartbleed to be so impactful was the fact that many experts did not provide information about the issue in a timely manner.
"As a whole, the Internet industry was absolutely shocking at providing end users with coherent or even accurate information about what was going on, let alone information that they could understand and act upon," Stilgherrian wrote.
At first, many experts thought the Heartbleed vulnerability compromised as much as two-thirds of encrypted Web traffic, putting this content at risk of being snooped or stolen by cybercriminals. While, in the end, it turned out that the weakness did not reach this estimated level, it still affected a number of popular services, including several social media platforms, search sites, email providers and others.
Because users were largely left to guess as to the safety of Facebook, Google, YouTube, Yahoo! Mail, Amazon Web Services and various other platforms, many were unsure if they could even utilize mission critical websites and resources.
"It is safe yet to go back onto the Internet? We've probably heard, to varying degrees, about this Heartbleed vulnerability – not a virus – it's an Internet vulnerability," noted INFOCON Green presenter Prue Bentley. "But we've been told to steer clear of the Internet – well, I've been told to steer clear of the Internet for a while – and change all my passwords."
What can users do to protect themselves?
Bentley's comments illustrate the uncertainty and hesitation surrounding the use of Web resources following the discovery of Heartbleed. Even after the vulnerability was patched and more information came out about what the weakness was and how it impacted individuals, many were still unsure as to what steps they should take next.
Bentley noted that many were told to change their passwords. Digital Trends also advised that users craft new, safer passwords to prevent any additional Heartbleed fall out.
"Most passwords don't have enough of what's called entropy – they are definitely not random and they will be guessed if an attacker even gets the opportunity to make lots of guesses, either by hammering the service or (more likely) stealing the password hashes – mathematical derivations of the passwords that can be checked but not reversed back into the original password," Digital Trends stated.
In addition, Trend Micro advised that users make sure their systems are as up to date as possible and that all security patches have been installed. After the Heartbleed discovery, every affected Web service had to be updated to patch the vulnerability. However, if users don't install these patches, their systems are still at risk for the Heartbleed weakness, making it critically important to ensure that technology is up to date.
Digital Trends also had some advice for websites, as well. In order to prevent an issue like this from happening again, online resources should leverage a one-time-password system to better protect their end users. The source recommended that websites leverage end-to-end encryption so that even the sensitive information these platforms do have is unreadable.
"If more of the net uses these advanced security methods, maybe next time there's a Heartbleed-scale software catastrophe – and there will be, eventually – we won't have to panic so much," Digital Trends stated.