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Dire warnings about Heartbleed, a serious internet security risk affecting millions of websites, is echoing across the internet today. Described as a flaw in OpenSSL, the open source encryption technology used by the vast majority of web servers.

The Heartbleed bug is a particularly nasty bug. It allows an attacker to read up to 64KB of memory, and the security researchers have said:

“Without using any privileged information or credentials we were able steal from ourselves the secret keys used for our X.509 certificates, user names and passwords, instant messages, emails and business critical documents and communication.”

heartbeet

Alleged Yahoo user credentials visible due to Heartbleed (source: Mark Loman).

The problem is fairly simple: there’s a tiny vulnerability — a simple missing bounds check — in the code that handles TLS ‘heartbeat’ messages. By abusing this mechanism, an attacker can request that a running TLS server hand over a relatively large slice (up to 64KB) of its private memory space. Since this is the same memory space where OpenSSL also stores the server’s private key material, an attacker can potentially obtain

  • long-term server private keys
  • TLS session keys
  • confidential data like passwords
  • session ticket keys

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