Think tank challenges Heartbleed handwringing

Recent opinion piece has researchers debating seriousness of the OpenSSL flaw

A think tank opinion piece that claims the threat from the Heartbleed bug is overblown has sparked a debate among researchers over the seriousness of the OpenSSL flaw.

[Hackers prepping for OpenSSL Heartbleed attacks]

In his column entitled "Heartbleed: Cybersecurity as Melodrama," James Andrew Lewis, director and senior fellow of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, argued Tuesday that cybercriminals would likely choose a much easier, and more effective, way than Heartbleed to steal valuable assets from companies.

"There are several steps between compromise and money," Lewis said. "Cybercriminals, a professional lot, use the most efficient techniques. These are people looking to make millions of dollars."

Heartbleed would not easily translate into the "industrial-scale crime" hackers seek, Lewis said. Examples would include the Target breach last year that led to the theft of millions of credit- and debit-card numbers. Such breaches typically occur through email phishing attacks aimed directly at the company, or in the case of Target, one of its suppliers.

In a recent Heartbleed challenge, one researcher had to send 2.5 million requests against a test server to get its private encryption key, while another participant had to make 100,000 requests. In Lewis' opinion, such an exploit would not be cost effective for most cybercriminals.

"They engage in industrial-scale crime, not piecework hacking of individual accounts," Lewis said. "Stealing your password, accessing your account, getting your credit card information, and then figuring out how to do this hundreds of thousands of times and monetize the date [sic] is too much work."

Joni Brennan, executive director of the Kantara Initiative, which is focused on developing better digital identity management, agreed that there is a "sensational element" to the Heartbleed media coverage.

"Likely this story has more relevance from the perspective of mass surveillance and vulnerabilities that underpin the Internet as a whole versus criminal behavior," Brennan said. "As the author notes, criminals tend to be much more sophisticated and targeted."

Among experts contacted, Brennan was in the minority. The others believed Heartbleed deserved all the attention it was getting from software and website developers and hardware manufacturers, all scrambling to patch products.

Researchers also pointed out that the Canada Revenue Agency, the country's tax-collection agency, has recently blamed Heartbleed for the loss of tax-related information. In addition, the BBC reported Monday that the leading U.K. site for parents, Mumsnet, had user passwords and personal messages stolen by cyber thieves who took advantage of the vulnerability.

"If you don't patch everything that's vulnerable and you don't fix everything you find, you're destined to lose," Mark Hoit, vice chancellor for information technology at North Carolina State University, said.

Critics of Lewis' piece also pointed out that a hacker exploiting the Heartbleed bug can steal data without leaving a trace, so a company can get hit over and over again and never know it.

[How to defend against the OpenSSL Heartbleed flaw]

"The capability to use Heartbleed to capture encryption keys and decrypt SSL is not something that should casually be dismissed as the author of this article seems too," Paul Henry, senior instructor for the SANS Institute, said. "HeartBleed is an issue that should be top of mind from a risk mitigation perspective for all organizations on both the server and client side."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 hot cybersecurity trends (and 2 going cold)