A confounding computer bug called “Heartbleed” is causing major security headaches across the internet, as websites scramble to fix the problem and web surfers wonder whether they should change their passwords to prevent theft of their email accounts, credit card numbers and other sensitive information.
The breakdown, revealed this week, affects a widely used encryption technology that is supposed to protect online accounts for a variety of online communications and electronic commerce.
Security researchers who uncovered the threat are particularly worried about the lapse because it went undetected for more than two years. They fear the possibility that computer hackers may have been secretly exploiting the problem before its discovery.
Although there is now a way to close the security hole, there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned, said David Chartier, CEO of Codenomicon. A small team from the Finnish security firm diagnosed Heartbleed while working independently from another Google Inc. researcher who also discovered the threat.
“I don’t think anyone that had been using this technology is in a position to definitively say they weren’t compromised,” Chartier said.
Canada’s tax agency isn’t taking any chances. Citing the security risks posed by Heartbleed, the Canada Revenue Agency shut off public access to its website “to safeguard the integrity of the information we hold,” according to a Wednesday notice posted on its website. The lock down comes just three weeks from Canada’s April 30 deadline for filing 2013 tax returns.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service said in a statement Wednesday that it is not affected by the security hole. “The IRS advises taxpayers to continue filing their tax returns as they normally would in advance of the April 15 deadline,” the agency said.
Computer security experts are advising people to consider changing all their online passwords.
“I would change every password everywhere because it’s possible something was sniffed out,” said Wolfgang Kandek, chief technology officer for Qualys, a maker of security-analysis software. “You don’t know because an attack wouldn’t have left a distinct footprint.”
But changing the passwords won’t do any good, these experts said, until the affected services install the software released Monday to fix the problem. That puts the onus on the internet services affected by Heartbleed to alert their users to the potential risks and let them know when the Heartbleed fix has been installed so they can change their passwords.
So far, very few websites have acknowledged being afflicted by Heartbleed, although the bug is believed to be widespread.
“This is going to be difficult for the average guy in the streets to understand, because it’s hard to know who has done what and what is safe,” Chartier said.
Yahoo Inc., which boasts more than 800 million users worldwide, is among the internet services that could be potentially hurt by Heartbleed. The Sunnyvale, Calif., company said most of its most popular services had been fixed, but work was still being done on other products that it didn’t identify in a statement Tuesday.
Heartbleed creates an opening in SSL/TLS, an encryption technology marked by the small, closed padlock and “https:” on web browsers to signify that traffic is secure. The flaw makes it possible to snoop on internet traffic even if the padlock had been closed. Interlopers could also grab the keys for deciphering encrypted data without the website owners knowing the theft had occurred, according to security researchers.
The problem affects only the variant of SSL/TLS known as OpenSSL, but that happens to be one of the most common on the Internet.