FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Problem of Heartbleed

by

We truly live in fearful times. One utterance of a potentially dangerous virus – be it biological or structural – and a pall comes over the public conversation. The language used is that of climate catastrophe, ecological doom, or, in the case of the latest computer virus by the name of Heartbleed, a destruction of trust in the structural integrity of how the Internet is used.

Pandemics are considered the satanic killers, able to strike globally, and cripple populations with inexorable ease. They lurk, waiting to strike with biblical fury. Similarly, the notion that the Internet will suffer structural damage terrifies users and pundits. Information, if not controlled, monitored, and encrypted, will invalidate norms of engagement on the world wide web.

Last week, Heartbleed, the handiwork of a German software developer by the name of Robin Seggelmann, made screaming headlines about affecting some two-thirds of the Internet’s websites. It was uncovered by employees at a Finnish company, Codemonicon, and researchers from Google. Segglemann, of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) seemed rather sanguine, even apologetic about a bug that introduced a flaw in the OpenSSL protocol. “I was working on improving OpenSSL and submitted numerous bug fixes and added new features. In one of the new features, unfortunately, I missed validating a variable containing a length.” The feature was also overlooked by the designated code reviewer.

The fuss would not have been so great but for the fact that the encryption software is employed in numerous social networking websites, banks, online shopping sites, and search engines for purposes of keeping data safe. It is a version of the Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol, heir to the Secore Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol that shelters internet traffic from full view. Data exchanged through such protocols is scrambled. Little wonder, then, that both government and non-government entities make extensive use of it.

Jordan Robertson, writing in Bloomberg (Apr 12), claimed that, “Millions of smartphones and tablets running Google Inc. (GOOGS)’s Android operation system have the Heartbleed software bug, in a sign of how broadly the flaw extends beyond the Internet and into consumer devices.” Google, realising a financial calamity around the corner, attempted to douse the flames by claiming that all versions of Android were immune to the flaw – except the version dubbed 4.1.1, released in 2012. Google’s own statistics show that 34 per cent of Android users use variations of the 4.1 software. Hardly a figure to inspire confidence.

The largest U.S.-mobile-phone based company, Verizon Wireless, similarly got the calming offensive, suggesting that it was “aware of the Open SSL security vulnerability referred to as ‘Heartbleed’, and we are working with our device manufacturers to test and deploy patches to any affected device on our network running Android 4.1.1.”

The bug’s discovery even made the Canadian government suspend electronic tax filing. All federal departments employing Open SSL were shut down during the week while security patches were run, while the Canada Review Agency expressed confidence in a statement that it was making “good progress” in getting matters back online. It even decided to go easy on tax payers for the duration of the interruption.

A host of consequences, then, if a mildly capable hacker was to get down to exploit the flaw. Credit card details, intercept usernames, passwords and the like could be gathered by those familiar with the fault from a website’s server in plain text. With a degree of dissimulation, sites might well leak the information, including master encryption keys.

With a certain automatic reflex, the National Security Agency and their band of merry peeping toms was blamed. It seemed to, at least on the surface, have their calling card – a flaw in an encryption protocol, a weakening of security, an opportunity to exploit. Keeping the fences up while also inflicting breaches are, after all, their twin operating principles.

A steadfast denial was issued, an unusual feat by the standards of the intelligence community. An emailed statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence explained that, “Reports that NSA or any other part of the government were aware of the so-called Heartbleed vulnerability before 2014 are wrong.”

Seggelmann was also quick to scotch suggestions that signal spooks were meddling, calling the Heartbleed problem a “simple programming error in the new feature, which unfortunately occurred in a security relevant area.”

A side of the NSA often neglected is its Information Assurance Directorate, the section of the agency engaged in the business of keeping secrets and preserving the integrity of information. Heartbleed, while a problem that the NSA must combat – after all, several government branches employ the OpenSS protocol – can serve as a useful future weapon. Critical observers of NSA activity such as Julian Sanchez (Guardian, Apr 13) argue that the NSA would have been keeping an eye out for such a flaw, placing its offensive and defensive functions at loggerheads.

Little wonder, then, that accusations brewed the NSA not only knew about Heartbleed two years prior, but also exploited it to the full. (This says nothing of other vulnerabilities the NSA may have actually uncovered, and remain undisclosed.)

Sanchez correctly notes that the President’s own Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies argued that the NSA “is and should not be a foreign intelligence organization” rather than “an information assurance organization.” With “multiple missions and mandates”, the NSA’s functions had proven “blurred, inherently conflicting, or both”.

The predicament our ever interconnected globe faces is collapse or corruption because of minor flaws that produce extraordinary consequences. But bodies, and hearts, need cleansing from time to time, which keeps those like Seggelmann busy in their efforts to avoid seizure and prevent a cardiac arrest. Viruses can be accidental, but also purposely engineered to test vulnerabilities. Acts of seeming triviality can doom a civilization to the chronicles, the murmur of a footnote. In Seggelmann’s own words, errors might themselves be “quite trivial”, but their impacts can be “severe”. Oscar Wilde would have chortled with approval.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

More articles by:
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 20016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
Andrew Levine
Why Not Hillary?
Paul Street
Hillary Clinton’s Neocon Resumé
Chris Floyd
Twilight of the Grifter: Bill Clinton’s Fading Powers
Eric Mann
How We Got the Tanks and M-16s Out of LA Schools
Jason Hirthler
The West’s Needless Aggression
Dan Arel
Why Hillary Clinton’s Camp Should Be Scared
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Flunks Decontamination
David Rosen
The Privatization of the Public Sphere
Margaret Kimberley
Obama’s Civil Rights Hypocrisy
Chris Gilbert
Corruption in Latin American Governments
Pete Dolack
We Can Dream, or We Can Organize
Dan Kovalik
Colombia: the Displaced & Invisible Nation
Jeffrey St. Clair
Fat Man Earrings: a Nuclear Parable
Medea Benjamin
Israel and Saudi Arabia: Strange Bedfellows in the New Middle East
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail