Website Security Flaw Spurring Calls to Change Passwords

Researchers have pushed out a fix for a security flaw that affects as many as two-thirds of all Internet servers and could let hackers intercept encrypted traffic including e-mail messages, banking information, usernames and passwords.

The flaw and the fix, which researchers disclosed on April 7, involves a two-year-old programming mistake in OpenSSL. OpenSSL is an open-source software that is widely used by Internet companies to secure traffic flowing between servers and users’ computers. SSL refers to an encryption protocol known as Secure Sockets Layer and its use is indicated by a closed padlock appearing on browsers next to a website’s address.

The vulnerability, dubbed Heartbleed, was discovered by researchers from Google Inc. and Codenomicon, a security firm based in Finland, and reported to OpenSSL, according to a blog post from Codenomicon. It isn’t known whether malicious hackers knew about the bug and were exploiting it, the researchers wrote.

The revelation comes at a time of mounting concern about hackers’ capabilities following consumer data breaches at Target Corp. and Neiman Marcus Group Ltd. and the spying scandal involving the National Security Agency.

People should change their passwords for sensitive sites to be on the safe side, said Zully Ramzan, chief technology officer of Elastica, a cyber-security firm.

“The one saving grace with this flaw is that it was relatively simple to spot and as a result very simple to fix,” Ramzan wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “That said, OpenSSL is incredibly widespread. It’s literally the most popular implementation of SSL on the planet. So any compromise in its security has far reaching implications.”

66 Percent

OpenSSL runs on as many as 66 percent of all active sites on the Internet, though many large consumer sites aren’t vulnerable to being exploited because they use specialized encryption equipment and software, the researchers wrote. A test site allows website administrators to check whether their properties are affected.

Google and Facebook Inc. said in e-mailed statements yesterday that their properties aren’t vulnerable to the flaw. Tests on the homepages of other large technology, e-commerce and banking companies including Microsoft Corp., Inc. and Bank of America Corp. indicated they weren’t vulnerable.

“The security of our users’ information is a top priority,” Google said in its statement. “We proactively look for vulnerabilities and encourage others to report them precisely so that we are able to fix them before they are exploited. We have assessed the SSL vulnerability and applied patches to key Google services.”

In a statement, Facebook said it “added protections for Facebook’s implementations of OpenSSL before this issue was publicly disclosed, and we haven’t detected any signs of suspicious activity on people’s accounts.”