'Heartbleed' exposes millions of online passwords

Posted April 9, 2014

— An alarming lapse in Internet security has exposed millions of passwords, credit card numbers and other sensitive information to potential theft.

The breakdown revealed this week affects a widely used encryption technology that is supposed to protect online accounts for emails, instant messaging and a wide range of electronic commerce.

Security researchers who uncovered the threat, known as "Heartbleed," are particularly worried about the vulnerability 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, chief executive of Codenomicon. A small team from the Finnish security firm diagnosed Heartbleed while working independently from a 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.

At this point, there is no evidence that any personal information was stolen or used maliciously.

Chartier and other 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.

"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, including sports, finance and Tumblr, had been fixed, but work was still being done on other products that it didn't identify in a statement Tuesday.

"We're focused on providing the most secure experience possible for our users worldwide and are continuously working to protect our users' data," Yahoo said.

Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of, has tested its systems for the vulnerability and found no sites affected by the Heartbleed bug, said Jason Priebe, director of technology for the company's New Media division.

"It's very difficult for the average user to know whether or not the sites they use have been compromised," Priebe said.

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.

About two-thirds of Web servers rely on OpenSSL, Chartier said. That means the information passing through hundreds of thousands of websites could be vulnerable, despite the protection offered by encryptions. Beside emails and chats, OpenSSL is also used to secure virtual private networks, which are used by employees to connect with corporate networks seeking to shield confidential information from prying eyes.

Claire Jordan, a Raleigh resident who uses her iPhone for everything from checking the weather to paying bills, said she worries about the safety of her banking account passwords.

"I hope my financial information is secure, my personal information," Jordan said.

"If I don't know one way or the other whether my banking site is compromised, and my banking provider is not telling me that their site was vulnerable or was not, I might want to reach out to them," Priebe said. "The last thing you want is to find out that your bank account has been cleared out by a hacker who accessed your password information through this vulnerability."

Heartbleed exposed a weakness in encryption at the same time that major Internet services such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Facebook are expanding their usage of technology to reassure the users about the sanctity of their personal data. The additional security measures are being adopted in response to mounting concerns about the U.S. government's surveillance of online activities and other communications. The snooping has been revealed during the past 10 months through a series of leaked documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Despite the worries raised by Heartbleed, Codenomicon said many large consumer sites aren't likely to be affected because of their "conservative choice" of equipment and software.

"Ironically, smaller and more progressive services or those who have upgraded to (the) latest and best encryption will be affected most," the security firm said in a blog post.

Although it may take months for smaller websites to install the Heartbleed fix, Chartier predicted all the major Internet services will act quickly to protect their reputations.

In a Tuesday post announcing it had installed the Heartbleed fix, Tumblr offered its users some blunt advice.

"This still means that the little lock icon (HTTPS) we all trusted to keep our passwords, personal emails and credit cards safe, was actually making all that private information accessible to anyone who knew about the exploit," Tumblr said. "This might be a good day to call in sick and take some time to change your passwords everywhere – especially your high-security services like email, file storage and banking, which may have been compromised by this bug."


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • "Screen Name-8/20" Apr 9, 2014

    View quoted thread


  • "Screen Name-8/20" Apr 9, 2014

    View quoted thread


    Hadn't thought of that, but that's definitely a GOOD point!!!

    Until they clear their website of the bug, the bug will still keep picking up passwords, including recently changed ones.

  • Geez Louise Apr 9, 2014

    View quoted thread

    --The wisest thing we could all do.

  • Apr 9, 2014

    I think it's time we start suing these software companies for these issues instead of complacently accepting that it is a "bug"."

    Of course when it's open-source and done by a collaboration of hundreds or thousands of individuals, who you gonna sue???

  • Apr 9, 2014

    Sensationalism. Nothing has been "exposed" as far as anyone knows. There is the POTENTIAL for catostrophic consequences, but at this time, there isn't any way to tell or know if anything has been exposed. With all the press over the cute "heartbleed" name, that will most certainly change shortly. But as it stands passwords and other data are not "exposed" to anyone unless they can take advantage of the security breach, which you may be sure is being closed as quickly as possibly by everyone concerned.

  • Nick Mason Apr 9, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Agree with everything except the last paragraph. C'mon. Not possible to do that in today's age. Also, those sites you list would be amongst the first to patch any problems because they've got the most to lose.

  • Fanny Chmelar Apr 9, 2014
    user avatar

    Until all web sites are patched, it is more dangerous to change your password than keep it as is.

  • Dichotomous Apr 9, 2014

    I think it's time we start suing these software companies for these issues instead of complacently accepting that it is a "bug". Security has been the failing of computers from the very start. While Gates, Dell, Jobs and all the rest are revered around the world and their companies (except for Jobs, but only because he's dead) are raking in such obscene billions , I think it's time that image is changed to reflect the poor quality of what they've produced. They should be held personally responsible for all of these security breaches.

  • rlwieland Apr 9, 2014

    and Wells fargo wants to know why i won't do online banking?

  • teleman60 Apr 9, 2014

    Listen to all the OUTRAGED VOICES!!!!!! Listen to all the GOVT BASHING!!!! These headlines are the ABSOLUTE WRONG thing to do - scare everyone!!

    Read the article at least TWICE and then concentrate on the lines stating "IT WILL PROBABLY AFFECT ONLY SMALLER CO's"

    Then look at the headlines and ask yourself "IS America becoming numb to these warnings - they are everywhere BECAUSE WE ARE CONSTANTLY CONNECTED!!!

    The smartest move is to NOT HAVE A SMART PHONE, NOT DO FACEBOOK, NOT USE TUMBLR , STOP TWEETING - just don't do all this stuff and your security will be MUCH LESS AT RISK!!

    (:from an IT security guy)