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Heartbleed was a headache, but far from fatal

Time for some perspective

Article comments

It's been a month since the Heartbleed Bug set off a stampede to patch software in everything from network gear to security software as it quickly became evident that vulnerable versions of the OpenSSL encryption code had been very widely deployed.

Heartbleed, which would let a savvy attacker capture passwords or digital certificates, for example, came as a shock when the OpenSSL Group disclosed it on April 7 because it impacted an estimated 60% of servers worldwide ... and much more. But has it been the catastrophe that some feared?

So far, the consensus seems to be no, though some think pinning down Heartbleed-based break-ins is not easy. At best, Heartbleed has been a mammoth inconvenience everywhere as passwords and certificates were swapped out in what became a patching marathon around the globe.

"It ended up being not that easy to exploit," says Bruce Schneier, CTO at Co3 Systems. Schneier is an encryption expert who had initially labelled Heartbleed a "catastrophic" event because of OpenSSL's pervasive use. "We saw some hackers and criminals in the wild using it, but not that much."

But the upheaval caused by Heartbleed -- a coding mistake made two years ago apparently by a German software developer who came forward to admit the mistake -- was absolutely huge as a broad swath of the network and security industry discovered after countless round-the-clock hours of investigating their own products that the vulnerable Heartbleed versions of OpenSSL were often embedded in them. But not all OpenSSL versions were vulnerable.

Cisco incident-response teams have determined roughly "359 Cisco products and services use OpenSSL or a related variant," says Cisco spokesman Nigel Glennie. "281 of these have been confirmed as not affected by the vulnerability, and 78 confirmed as affected. Of those 41 have already had patches provided."

As of today, Cisco was still investigating the product Cisco Virtual Security Gateway for VMware. Since April 9, Cisco has made 19 revisions to its Security Advisory on Heartbleed. Cisco is handing out a "Heartbleed Bug: Assessment Guide" to customers, a six-page reference that explains the nature of the OpenSSL problem and how to remediate it.

"Everyone was using OpenSSL," says Gil Friedrich, vice president of technology at ForeScout Technologies, which says it fixed its own Heartbleed product problem in the first 24 hours after it became known. He says ForeScout also helped banking customers by analyzing the products they used in their networks for vulnerable OpenSSL.

Mandiant, now part of FireEye, in mid-April said hackers got into one customer's network because of Heartbleed. There were a few other random reports of Heartbleed troubles, such as when the Canadian Revenue Agency in April temporarily shut down its website in the middle of tax season after a hacker broke into it and stole 900 social insurance numbers.

But many in the security industry say it seems that attacks exploiting the Heartbleed flaw don't appear to have been common.

"You don't see a lot of exploits on this," says Jim Walter, director of advanced threat research at Intel Security (the new name that McAfee is transitioning to after being acquired by Intel). "We had only a handful of reports on data breaches."


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