Cyberwars: “Bigger than Heartbleed”

Shellshock-bash-header-664x374Just months after the Heartbleed bug made waves across the internet, a new security flaw has emerged which threatens to compromise everything from major servers to connected cameras. It is known as the Bash or Shellshock bug, a quarter-century old vulnerability that could put everything from major internet companies and small-scale web hosts to wi-fi connected devices at risk.

This  flaw allows malicious code execution within the bash shell – commonly accessed through Command Prompt on PC or Mac’s Terminal application – to take over an operating system and access confidential information. According to the open-source software company Red Hat, bash shells are run in the background of many programs, and the bug is triggered when extra code is added within the lines of Bash code.

heartbleed-iconBecause the bug interacts with a large percentage of software currently in use, and does in ways that are unexpected, Robert Graham – an internet security expert – claims that the Bash bug is bigger than Heartbleed. As he explained it:

We’ll never be able to catalogue all the software out there that is vulnerable to the Bash bug. While the known systems (like your Web server) are patched, unknown systems remain unpatched. We see that with the Heartbleed bug: six months later, hundreds of thousands of systems remain vulnerable.

According to a report filed by Ars Technica, the vulnerability could affect Unix and Linux devices, as well as hardware running Max OS X – particularly Mac OS X Mavericks (version 10.9.4). Graham warned that the Bash bug was also particularly dangerous for connected devices because their software is built using Bash scripts, which are less likely to be patched and more likely to expose the vulnerability to the outside world.

shellshock_bashAnd since the bug has existed for some two and a half decades, a great number of older devices will be vulnerable and need to be patched because of it. By contrast, The Heartbleed bug was introduced into OpenSSL more than two years ago, allowing random bits of memory to be retrieved from impacted servers. And according to security researcher Bruce Schneier, roughly half a million websites could be vulnerable.

For the time being, the administrative solution is to apply patches to your operating system. Tod Beardsley, an engineering manager at security firm Rapid7, claims that even though the vulnerability’s complexity is low, the level of danger it poses is severe. In addition, the wide range of devices affected by the bug make it essential that system administrators apply patches immediately.

cyber_virusAs Beardsley explained during an interview with CNET:

This vulnerability is potentially a very big deal. It’s rated a 10 for severity, meaning it has maximum impact, and ‘low’ for complexity of exploitation — meaning it’s pretty easy for attackers to use it… The affected software, Bash, is widely used so attackers can use this vulnerability to remotely execute a huge variety of devices and Web servers. Using this vulnerability, attackers can potentially take over the operating system, access confidential information, make changes etc. Anybody with systems using bash needs to deploy the patch immediately.

Attackers can potentially take over the operating system, access confidential information, and make changes. After conducting a scan of the internet to test for the vulnerability, Graham reported that the bug “can easily worm past firewalls and infect lots of systems” which he says would be “‘game over’ for large networks”. Similar to Beardsley, Graham said the problem needed immediate attention.

cyber-hackIn the meantime, Graham advised people to do the following:

Scan your network for things like Telnet, FTP, and old versions of Apache (masscan is extremely useful for this). Anything that responds is probably an old device needing a Bash patch. And, since most of them can’t be patched, you are likely screwed.

How lovely! But then again, these sorts of exploitable vulnerabilities are likely to continue to pop up until we rethink how the internet is run. As the Heartbleed bug demonstrated, the problem at the heart (no pun!) of it all is that vast swaths of the internet run on open-source software that is created by only a handful of people who are paid very little (and sometimes, not at all) for performing this lucrative job.

In addition, there is a terrible lack of oversight and protection when it comes to the internet’s infrastructure. Rather than problems being addressed in an open-source manner after they emerge, there needs to be a responsible body of committed and qualified individuals who have the ability to predict problems in advance, propose possible solutions, and come up with a set of minimum standards and regulations.

cryptographyEnsuring that it is international body would also be advisable. For as the Snowden leaks demonstrated, so much of the internet is controlled the United States. And as always, people need to maintain a degree of vigilance, and seek out information – which is being updated on a regular basis – on how they might address any possible vulnerabilities in their own software.

I can remember reading not long ago that the growing amount of cyber-attacks would soon cause people to suffer from “alert fatigue”. Well, those words are ringing in my ears, as it seems that a growing awareness of our internet’s flaws is likely to lead to “bug fatique” as well. Hopefully, it will also urge people to action and lead to some significant reforms in how the internet is structured and administered.


Cyberwars: The Heartbleed Bug and Web Security

heartbleed-iconA little over two years ago, a tiny piece of code was introduced to the internet that contained a bug. This bug was known as Heartbleed, and in the two years it has taken for the world to recognize its existence, it has caused quite a few headaches. In addition to allowing cybercriminals to steal passwords and usernames from Yahoo, it has also allowed people to steal from online bank accounts, infiltrate governments institutions (such as Revenue Canada), and generally undermine confidence in the internet.

What’s more, in an age of cyberwarfare and domestic surveillance, its appearance would give conspiracy theorists a field day. And since it was first disclosed a month to the day ago, some rather interesting theories as to how the NSA and China have been exploiting this to spy on people have surfaced. But more on that later. First off, some explanation as to what Heartbleed is, where it came from, and how people can protect themselves from it, seems in order.

cyber_securityFirst off, Heartbleed is not a virus or a type of malware in the traditional sense, though it can be exploited by malware and cybercriminals to achieve similar results. Basically, it is a security bug or programming error in popular versions of OpenSSL, a software code that encrypts and protects the privacy of your password, banking information and any other sensitive data you provide in the course of checking your email or doing a little online banking.

Though it was only made public a month ago, the origins of the bug go back just over two years – to New Year’s Eve 2011, to be exact. It was at this time that Stephen Henson, one of the collaborators on the OpenSSL Project, received the code from Robin Seggelmann – a respected academic who’s an expert in internet protocols. Henson reviewed the code – an update for the OpenSSL internet security protocol — and by the time he and his colleagues were ringing in the New Year, he had added it to a software repository used by sites across the web.

Hackers-With-An-AgendaWhat’s interesting about the bug, which is named for the “heartbeat” part of the code that it affects, is that it is not a virus or piece of malware in the traditional sense. What it does is allow people the ability to read the memory of systems that are protected by the bug-affected code, which accounts for two-thirds of the internet. That way, cybercriminals can get the keys they need to decode and read the encrypted data they want.

The bug was independently discovered recently by Codenomicon – a Finnish web security firm – and Google Security researcher Neel Mehta. Since information about its discovery was disclosed on April 7th, 2014, The official name for the vulnerability is is estimated that some 17 percent (around half a million) of the Internet’s secure web servers that were certified by trusted authorities have been made vulnerable.

cyberwarfare1Several institutions have also come forward in that time to declare that they were subject to attack. For instance, The Canada Revenue Agency that they were accessed through the exploit of the bug during a 6-hour period on April 8th and reported the theft of Social Insurance Numbers belonging to 900 taxpayers. When the attack was discovered, the agency shut down its web site and extended the taxpayer filing deadline from April 30 to May 5.

The agency also said it would provide anyone affected with credit protection services at no cost, and it appears that the guilty parties were apprehended. This was announced on April 16, when the RCMP claimed that they had charged an engineering student in relation to the theft with “unauthorized use of a computer” and “mischief in relation to data”. In another incident, the UK parenting site Mumsnet had several user accounts hijacked, and its CEO was impersonated.

nsa_aerialAnother consequence of the bug is the impetus it has given to conspiracy theorists who believe it may be part of a government-sanctioned ploy. Given recent revelations about the NSA’s extensive efforts to eavesdrop on internet activity and engage in cyberwarfare, this is hardly a surprise. Nor would it be the first time, as anyone who recalls the case made for the NIST SP800-90 Dual Ec Prng program – a pseudorandom number generator is used extensively in cryptography – acting as a “backdoor” for the NSA to exploit.

In that, and this latest bout of speculation, it is believed that the vulnerability in the encryption itself may have been intentionally created to allow spy agencies to steal the private keys that vulnerable web sites use to encrypt your traffic to them. And cracking SSL to decrypt internet traffic has long been on the NSA’s wish list. Last September, the Guardian reported that the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ had “successfully cracked” much of the online encryption we rely on to secure email and other sensitive transactions and data.

Edward-Snowden-660x367According to documents the paper obtained from Snowden, GCHQ had specifically been working to develop ways into the encrypted traffic of Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Hotmail to decrypt traffic in near-real time; and in 2010, there was documentation that suggested that they might have succeeded. Although this was two years before the Heartbleed vulnerability existed, it does serve to highlight the agency’s efforts to get at encrypted traffic.

For some time now, security experts have speculated about whether the NSA cracked SSL communications; and if so, how the agency might have accomplished the feat. But now, the existence of Heartbleed raises the possibility that in some cases, the NSA might not have needed to crack SSL at all. Instead, it’s possible the agency simply used the vulnerability to obtain the private keys of web-based companies to decrypt their traffic.

hackers_securityThough security vulnerabilities come and go, this one is deemed catastrophic because it’s at the core of SSL, the encryption protocol trusted by so many to protect their data. And beyond abuse by government sources, the bug is also worrisome because it could possibly be used by hackers to steal usernames and passwords for sensitive services like banking, ecommerce, and email. In short, it empowers individual troublemakers everywhere by ensuring that the locks on our information can be exploited by anyone who knows how to do it.

Matt Blaze, a cryptographer and computer security professor at the University of Pennsylvania, claims that “It really is the worst and most widespread vulnerability in SSL that has come out.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ars Technica, and Bruce Schneier all deemed the Heartbleed bug “catastrophic”, and Forbes cybersecurity columnist Joseph Steinberg event went as far as to say that:

Some might argue that [Heartbleed] is the worst vulnerability found (at least in terms of its potential impact) since commercial traffic began to flow on the Internet.

opensslRegardless, Heartbleed does point to a much larger problem with the design of the internet. Some of its most important pieces are controlled by just a handful of people, many of whom aren’t paid well — or aren’t paid at all. In short, Heartbleed has shown that more oversight is needed to protect the internet’s underlying infrastructure. And the sad truth is that open source software — which underpins vast swathes of the net — has a serious sustainability problem.

Another problem is money, in that important projects just aren’t getting enough of it. Whereas well-known projects such as Linux, Mozilla, and the Apache web server enjoy hundreds of millions of dollars in annual funding, projects like the OpenSSL Software Foundation – which are forced to raise money for the project’s software development – have never raised more than $1 million in a year. To top it all off, there are issues when it comes to the open source ecosystem itself.

Cyber-WarTypically, projects start when developers need to fix a particular problem; and when they open source their solution, it’s instantly available to everyone. If the problem they address is common, the software can become wildly popular overnight. As a result, some projects never get the full attention from developers they deserve. Steve Marquess, one of the OpenSSL foundation’s partners, believes that part of the problem is that whereas people can see and touch their web browsers and Linux, they are out of touch with the cryptographic library.

In the end, the only real solutions is in informing the public. Since internet security affects us all, and the processes by which we secure our information is entrusted to too few hands, then the immediate solution is to widen the scope of inquiry and involvement. It also wouldn’t hurt to commit additional resources to the process of monitoring and securing the web, thereby ensuring that spy agencies and private individuals are not exercising too much or control over it, or able to do clandestine things with it.

In the meantime, the researchers from Codenomicon have set up a website with more detailed information. Click here to access it and see what you can do to protect yourself.

Sources:,, (2),