Skip to main content

How Heartbleed bug weakened everyone's online safety

By Chester Wisniewski
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Researchers found a bug that could make public your private information online
  • Chester Wisniewski: A simple mistake in open-source computer code is responsible
  • All of us rely on the volunteer work that goes into open-source code, author says
  • He says companies and people need to realize we're all in this together

Editor's note: Chester Wisniewski is a senior security adviser at Sophos Inc., Canada. He researches computer security and privacy issues and is a regular contributor to the Naked Security blog. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- This week, researchers from Google and the Finnish security consulting group Codenomicon disclosed a bug, called Heartbleed, in OpenSSL, one of the most ubiquitous encryption software packages in use on the Internet.

Two thirds of the web sites and applications that allow you to do online banking or communicate privately through e-mail, voice or instant message use OpenSSL to protect your communications.

That is why a bug in OpenSSL that can render the private information you are transmitting across the wire visible to attackers is a very big deal.

The bug itself is a simple, honest mistake in the computer code that was intended to reduce the computing resources encryption consumes. The problem is that this bug made it past the quality assurance tests and has been deployed across the Internet for nearly two years.

Chester Wisniewski
Chester Wisniewski

This brings into question all the secure conversations we thought we were having on affected services over that time. A big deal indeed.

How does something like this happen? Aren't there a lot of people looking at this code? It is open source after all; anyone can take a peek.

Usually the availability of source code to public scrutiny results in applications being more secure and one could argue that is what happened here. Researchers at Google were looking carefully at the code and discovered this mistake. Unfortunately, that discovery came two years too late.

Fortunately, most major Web services have already applied fixes to the affected Web servers and services. The bad news is that smaller websites as well as many companies' products that rely on OpenSSL may linger for many more years without a fix.

To a degree, we are at the mercy of the website operators and companies who make security products to apply these fixes to protect us.

Some are suggesting that everyone should change all their passwords. While it is never a bad idea to change your passwords, increase their strength and ensure they are sufficiently unique, you should only do this after confirming the site has been fixed.

Too little attention is paid to the critical nature of the free software that keeps the Internet moving. We expect this army of volunteers to write and maintain much of the code that enables our fast and free Internet, all without payment, without support, in essence without a thought.

Recently, companies like Google have begun making an effort to rectify this situation through programs like Patch Rewards. Google offers to pay researchers to find bugs in commonly used open source software, including OpenSSL, so the community can work together to fix flaws more quickly, resulting in a safer Internet.

All of us have come to rely on the Internet socially, politically and economically. The billions of dollars a year being made by the tech giants would not be possible without the millions of donated hours that maintain free and open software like OpenSSL, Linux, Apache Web server, and Postfix mail server.

This is a fight for our privacy, security and our freedom to communicate.
Chester Wisniewski

Businesses, government and individuals all have something to offer that can help. This isn't a battle between Windows, Mac and Linux or some battle between free and commercial software. This is a fight for our privacy, security and our freedom to communicate.

For some of us what we can offer is coding talent, others financial support, and still others can test software more thoroughly to ensure the reliability and security of the resulting code.

The most important thing is to recognize the importance of our collective security and to realize that in the end we are all tangled together online. A weakness in one can affect us all.

Follow CNN Opinion on Twitter.

Join the conversation on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT