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

Everything's been hacked! Change all your passwords but not yet! Security experts cut through the Heartbleed hype.

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."

The hype: You must change all of your passwords

The reality: You should, but not yet

It's true that the Heartbleed vulnerability has existed for a couple years, and there's a fair chance that your passwords have been exposed or compromised. However, it's pointless to change your password on a vulnerable site before it has confirmed that the service is patched.

Tom Cross, director of security research at Lancope, says passwords were likely only exposed if users logged in to a vulnerable site after the vulnerability was made public. The odds of that are lower than the alarm around Heartbleed might suggest, because only 11 to 17 percent of websites are estimated to have been vulnerable, and most of them rapidly deployed the necessary patch.

The problem here is knowing when a vulnerable site has been fixed. Not all companies are being forthright about remediating the bug.

"Unless your vendors have specifically announced they have patched and reset their certificates, it wouldn't be a bad idea to change your password now and then again in a month," says Andrew Storms, director of DevOps for CloudPassage. "Everyone should remember two important best practices: use unique passwords on each site and change your password on a regular basis."

The real risk is crying wolf

As far as these experts are concerned, more dangerous than the Heartbleed vulnerability itself is the distorted expectations the media has created in its wake.

"Everyone talks about educating users, but this assumption puts the onus on the security industry," says Reguly. "If we cry wolf with every vulnerability, we're doing end users a disservice." Other security issues deserve as much or more concern, Reguly adds. "This is a critical issue that must be fixed, but for the average consumer the latest Flash and IE zero-days still pose a greater risk than Heartbleed."

This story, "Heartbleed: Security experts reality-check the 3 most hysterical fears" was originally published by PCWorld.

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