A major flaw revealed this week in widely used encryption software has highlighted one of the enduring – and terrifying – realities of the internet: it is inherently chaotic, built by multitudes and continuously tweaked, with nobody in overall charge.
The Heartbleed bug is a product of the online world's makeshift nature. While users see the logos of big, multibillion-dollar companies when they shop, bank and communicate over the internet, nearly all of those companies rely on free software – often built and maintained by volunteers – to help make those services secure.
The Heartbleed vulnerability arose from a section of code that had been approved two years ago by a developer that helps maintain OpenSSL, a piece of free software created in the mid-1990s and still used by companies and government agencies almost everywhere.
While the extent of the damage caused by the bug may never be known, the possibilities for data theft are enormous. At the very least, many companies and government agencies will have to replace their encryption keys, and millions of users will have to create new passwords on sites where they are accustomed to seeing the small lock icon that symbolises online encryption.
“This was old code. Everyone depends on it. And I think that just everyone assumed that somebody else was dealing with it,” says Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The group that was actually maintaining OpenSSL consisted of fewer than a dozen encryption enthusiasts spread across four continents. Many have never met each other in person. Their headquarters – if there can be said to be one – is a sprawling home office in Frederick, Maryland, where a single employee lives and works amid racks of servers and an industrial-grade internet connection.
The total donations to the group last year, in support of work that keeps billions of pounds of commerce and countless personal secrets flowing safely across the internet: less than £1,500. Luckily, the group also makes some money from consulting work.
“When you consider how complicated and significant a piece of software it is, and how critical a piece of infrastructure it is, it is kind of mind-boggling,” said Steve Marquess, the president of the OpenSSL Software Foundation and a former US federal technology contractor.
The Heartbleed flaw was discovered by a Google researcher and, separately, by a Finnish security company, Codenomicon. The flaw could allow hackers to access user names, passwords and credit card numbers. Some researchers believe that hackers could potentially access encryption keys that could unlock internet traffic on a mass scale.
OpenSSL is “open source” software – the source code is publicly available for scrutiny – and it was thought that such problems were less likely than with closed source software such as Microsoft's products. The belief is captured in a saying popular among the open source community: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” – meaning flaws will be spotted and quickly fixed.
But security experts have warned for years that open-source software can harbour serious problems because the volunteers and non-profit groups that often create them lack the time and expertise to continually update their work against a barrage of hacking attempts.
Part of the problem is that many large profit-making companies make use of open-source software without contributing to its maintenance, either financially or in programming expertise. “These are guys are working very hard for very little money,” says Matthew Green, a Johns Hopkins University cryptography expert. “Yahoo and all these companies are getting all this value out of this. If they just gave a small fraction of that [to the foundation], everyone would be better off.”
The foundation made less than £500,000 last year, almost entirely from consulting contracts. That is not enough to commission a security audit of OpenSSL, a meticulous process that involves testing the software for vulnerabilities.
“This is the sort of thing that nobody is going to come along and offer a wad of money to do,” said Mr Marquess. “No one person is going to get a benefit out of that.” Hence the global palpitations over Heartbleed.
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