The world is about to get another reminder about just how much of the Internet runs on technology maintained by a handful of coders working on a shoestring budget. OpenSSL — the software used by thousands of companies to encrypt online communications — is set to get a security makeover this week: The OpenSSL project said it plans to release new versions of its code to fix a number of security weaknesses, including some classified as “high” severity.
OpenSSL is deployed at countless organizations, including at Web giants like Facebook, Google and Yahoo — as well as broadly across U.S. federal government networks. As its name suggests, OpenSSL implements Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption (also known as “transport layer security” or TLS) for Web sites and associated networks, ensuring that the data cannot be read by untrusted parties.
The patch is likely to set off a mad scramble by security teams at organizations that rely on OpenSSL. That’s because security updates — particularly those added to open-source software like OpenSSL that anyone can view — give cybercriminals a road map toward finding out where the fixed vulnerabilities lie and insight into how to exploit those flaws.
Indeed, while the OpenSSL project plans to issue the updates on Thursday, Mar. 19, the organization isn’t pre-releasing any details about the fixes. Steve Marquess, a founding partner at the OpenSSL Software Foundation, said that information will only be shared in advance with the major operating system vendors.
“We’d like to let everyone know so they can be prepared and so forth, but we have been slowly driven to a pretty brutal policy of no [advance] disclosure,” Marquess said. “One of our main revenue sources is support contracts, and we don’t even give them advance notice.”
Advance notice helps not only defenders, but attackers as well. Last year, ne’er-do-wells pounced on Heartbleed, the nickname given to an extremely critical flaw in OpenSSL that allowed anyone to extract passwords, cookies and other sensitive data from servers that were running vulnerable versions of OpenSSL. This Heartbleed disclosure timeline explains a great deal about how that process unfolded in a less-than-ideal manner.
In the wake of Heartbleed, media organizations asked how such a bug — which many security experts said was a fairly obvious blunder in hindsight — could have gone undetected in the guts of the open-source code for so long. Marquess took to his blog to explain, posting an open letter requesting additional financial support for the OpenSSL project and pointing out the stark fact that so much of the Internet runs on top of software that is maintained by a tiny team with a shoestring budget.
“So the mystery is not that a few overworked volunteers missed this bug; the mystery is why it hasn’t happened more often,” said of the Heartbleed bug.
In an interview with KrebsOnSecurity, Marquess said the updates to be released tomorrow are partly the product of a spike in donations and funding the organization received in the wake of Heartbleed.
In that brief glare of publicity, the OpenSSL Foundation landed two Linux Foundation fellowships — meaning the group gained two new people who are paid for three years to work full-time on improving the security and stability of OpenSSL. Using donations and some commercial revenues, the foundation also is self-funding two additional people to maintain the code.
“We have four people working full-time on OpenSSL doing just what needs to be done, as opposed to working on stuff that brings in revenue,” Marquess said. “We have a lot more manpower resources, and one of the reasons you’re seeing all these bug and vulnerability fixes coming out now is that not only are outsiders looking for problems but we are too. “We’re also doing a major overhaul of the source code, in conjunction with what is going to be probably the biggest crypto audit ever.”