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Heartbleed: Security experts reality-check the 3 most hysterical fears

Tony Bradley | April 21, 2014
Heartbleed has dominated tech headlines for a week now.

Heartbleed has dominated tech headlines for a week now. News outlets, citizen bloggers, and even late-night TV hosts have jumped on the story, each amping up the alarm a little more than the last one. But while it's true Heartbleed is a critical flaw with widespread implications, several security experts we've spoken with believe the sky-is-falling tone of the reporting is a bit melodramatic.

"While this is technically a big deal,' the exposure that this has received by the media is overblown," says Greg Foss, senior security research engineer for LogRhythm, "especially when compared to other serious vulnerabilities that are responsibly disclosed every day, which few outside of the security community ever hear about."

So what do you need to worry about? Read on for the hype and the reality behind three of the most common claims to come out of the heartbleed hysteria.

The hype: The entire Internet has been compromised and it's open season for hackers.

The reality: You're probably not a target.

The Heartbleed vulnerability exists in OpenSSL, a common implementation of the SSL protocol used to secure communications on the Internet. It doesn't matter which browser or device you're using — if you are connecting to, or interacting with, sites and services that are using a vulnerable version of OpenSSL, any data you transmit is at risk of compromise.

That's certainly serious, but the patch for Heartbleed has been available since the vulnerability was publicly disclosed, and most affected sites and applications have already taken corrective action. The remaining sites and consumer-oriented Internet-of-things devices that rely on OpenSSL are at greater risk now that the flaw is public, but attackers generally focus on easy targets with high value. Your home router is most likely not worth the time and effort.

The hype: You're at great risk of being hacked.

The reality: Your risk is minimal if you're taking basic security measures.

CloudFlare tests confirmed it's possible to use the Heartbleed vulnerability to capture a server's private encryption key. Because this could enable an attacker to spoof a connection, create a malicious site that appears legitimate, or decrypt communications they've collected, sites and services need to be aware of it.

But there are two important caveats to consider. First, obtaining the private key requires a number of requests that any IDS/IPS (intrusion detection system / intrusion prevention system) should detect. In theory, an attacker shouldn't be able to steal the private keys, because alarm bells would go off and the IT admin would take steps to block those attempts.

Second, the leakage of a private key doesn't necessarily increase risks to the average consumer. "If you're a regular user of public Wi-Fi, then the risk is greatly increased," says Tyler Reguly, security research manager for Tripwire. "[But] if you're using your home computer on your own connection or your phone's data plan, the risk is minimized quite a bit. The odds that attackers have stored packet captures of your interactions that they can go back and decrypt is incredibly unlikely."


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