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. Continue reading →