NEW YORK (AP) — Millions of passwords, credit card numbers and other personal information may be at risk as a result of a major breakdown in Internet security revealed earlier this week.
The damage caused by the “Heartbleed” bug is currently unknown. The security hole exists on a vast number of the Internet's Web servers and went undetected for more than two years.
There isn't much that people can do to protect themselves until the affected websites implement a fix.
Some questions and answers about Heartbleed and how you can protect yourself:
Q: What is Heartbleed and why is it a big deal?
A: Heartbleed affects the encryption technology designed to protect online accounts for email, instant messaging and e-commerce. It was discovered by a team of researchers from the Finnish security firm Codenomicon, along with a Google Inc. researcher who was working separately.
It's unclear whether any information has been stolen as a result of Heartbleed, but security experts are particularly worried about the bug because it went undetected for more than two years. The researchers who discovered the flaw said that up to two-thirds of websites could be affected. Other security experts said the number of sites could stretch into the hundreds of thousands.
By Tuesday evening, simple tools to take advantage of the vulnerability were being shared on hacker forums, Brian Krebs, a security researcher, said.
Q: How does it work?
A: Heartbleed creates an opening in SSL/TLS, an encryption technology marked by the small, closed padlock and “https:” on Web browsers to show that traffic is secure. The flaw makes it possible to snoop on Internet traffic even if the padlock is closed. Interlopers can also grab the keys for deciphering encrypted data without the website owners knowing the theft occurred.
The problem affects only the variant of SSL/TLS known as OpenSSL, but that happens to be one of the most common on the Internet.
Q: So if the problem has been identified, it's been fixed and I have nothing to worry about. Right?
A: It depends on the website. A fixed version of OpenSSL has been released, but it's up to the individual website administrators to put it into place.
Yahoo Inc., which has more than 800 million users around the world, said this week that most of its popular services — including sports, finance and Tumblr — had been fixed, but work was still being done on other products that it didn't identify. Some Internet, banking and retail companies said they were never vulnerable because they didn't use that type of security software or said they had already repaired the bad code.
In addition to Yahoo, Google and Facebook confirmed they had been affected by the OpenSSL flaw and had applied fixes to their systems.
Many of the country's largest retailers, like Amazon, Walgreens, Nordstrom and Target — which suffered an enormous data breach of its own late last year — said they were not affected.
Among major financial institutions, the impact did not appear to be significant. A representative of JPMorgan Chase said it did not use the software that was affected by the Heartbleed flaw and it had determined that its users' login information was not compromised. Citigroup said in an email that its initial assessment was that its banking and credit card websites were not affected, but that it was “taking appropriate steps” to safeguard them.
Q: So what can I do to protect myself?
A: Ultimately, you'll need to change your passwords, but that won't do any good until the sites you use adopt the fix. It's also up to the Internet services affected by the bug to let users know of the potential risks and encourage them to change their passwords. Krebs said, “It certainly can't hurt to change your password now and then again next week.” Security researchers and the password management company LastPass set up various Internet tools where consumers could check specific sites to see whether they were safe.
Mashable has published a useful guide, "The Passwords You Need to Change Right Now."
Q: I plan to file my income taxes online. Is that safe considering how much personal information is involved?
A: The IRS released a statement on Wednesday saying that it's not affected by the bug or aware of any related security flaws. It advised taxpayers to continue filing their returns as they normally would in advance of the April 15 deadline.
But Canada's tax agency on Wednesday temporarily cut off public access to its electronic filling services just three weeks before its tax deadline citing Heartbleed-related security concerns.
This report includes material from the New York Times.