By now you have probably heard about Heartbleed, which is the biggest security threat to the Internet that we have ever seen. The bottom line of Heartbleed is that for the past two years most web sites claiming to be secure, shown by the HTTPS address (the S added to the end of the usual HTTP address was intended to indicate a web secured by encryption), have not been secure at all. Information on those webs could easily have been bled out by any semi-skilled hacker who discovered the defect. That includes your user names and passwords, maybe even your credit card and bank account information.
For this reason every security expert that I follow, or have talked to about this threat, advises everyone to change ALL of their online passwords. No one knows who might have acquired this information in the past two years. Unfortunately, the nature of this software defect made it possible to steal data in an untraceable manner. Although most web sites have upgraded their software by now, they were exposed for two years. The only safe thing to do is assume your personal information has been compromised.
Change All of Your Passwords
After you go out and change all of your passwords – YES – DO IT NOW – please come back and I will share some information on Heartbleed that you may not find anywhere else. I will share a quick overview of a lawyer’s perspective on a disaster like this and what I think we should do about it.
Rules of the Internet
One of the things e-discovery lawyers like me are very interested in, and concerned about, is data security. Heartblead is the biggest threat anyone has ever seen to our collective online security, so I have made a point of trying to learn everything I could about it. My research is ongoing, but I have already published a detailed report on my personal blog. I have also been pondering policy changes, and changes in the laws governing the Internet that be should made to avoid this kind of breach in the future.
I have been thinking about laws and the Internet since the early 1990s. As I said then, the Internet is not a no-mans-land of irresponsibility. It has laws and is subject to laws, not only laws of countries, but of multiple independent non-profit groups such as ICANN. I first pointed this out out as a young lawyer in my 1996 book for MacMillan, Your Cyber Rights and Responsibilities: The Law of the Internet, Chapter 3 of Que’s Special Edition Using the Internet. Anyone who commits crimes on the Internet must and will be prosecuted, no matter where their bodies are located. The same goes for negligent actors, be they human, corporate, or robot. I fully expect that several law suits will be filed as a result of Heartbleed. Time will tell if any of them succeed. Many of the facts are still unknown.
One Small Group Is to Blame for Heartbleed
The surprising thing I learned in researching Heartbleed is that this huge data breach was caused by a small mistake in software programming by a small unincorporated association called OpenSSL. This is the group that maintains the open source software that two-thirds of the Internet relies upon for encryption, in other words, to secure web sites from data breach. It is free software and the people who write the code are unpaid volunteers.
According to the Washington Post, OpenSSL‘s headquarters — to the extent one exists at all — is the home of the group’s only employee, a part timer at that, located on Sugarloaf Mountain, Maryland. He lives and works amid racks of servers and an industrial-grade Internet connection. Craig Timberg, Heartbleed bug puts the chaotic nature of the Internet under the magnifying glass (Washington Post, 4/9/14).
The mistake that caused Heartbleed was made by a lone math student in Münster, Germany. He submitted an add-on to the code that was supposed to correct prior mistakes he had found. His add on contained what he later described as a trivial error. Trivial or not, this is the biggest software coding error of all time based upon impact. What makes the whole thing suspicious is that he made this submission at one minute before midnight on New Year’s Eve 2011.
Once the code was received by OpenSSL, it was reviewed by it before it was added onto the next version of the software. Here is where we learn another surprising fact, it was only reviewed by one person, and he again missed the simple error. Then the revised code with hidden defect was released onto an unsuspecting world. No one detected it until March 2014 when paid Google security employees finally noticed the blunder. So much for the basic crowd sourcing rationale behind the open source software movement.
Placing the reliance of the security of the Internet on only one open source group, OpenSSL, a group with only four core members, is too high a risk in today’s world. It may have made sense back in the early nineties when an open Internet first started, but not now. Heartbleed proves this. This is why I have called upon leaders of the Internet, including open source advocates, privacy experts, academics, governments, political leaders and lawyers to meet to consider various solutions to tighten the security of the Internet. We cannot continue business as usual when it comes to Internet data security.