Whenever a new exploit surfaces, such as Heartbleed, and the media focuses all its attention on it, I have to wonder whether the exploit may not be a red herring—a bit of misdirection used to keep our attention focused anywhere other than it should be. It’s true that this exploit is quite terrible. It affects any server running Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TSL) software based on OpenSSL, which is actually supposed to protect people engaged in confidential transactions. Supposedly, Windows and OS X servers are immune to the exploit, but these servers often rely on services offered by servers that are affected, so everyone is suspect at this point. It’s my understanding that the exploit is incredibly easy to implement and doesn’t leave any trace once the perpetrator has gone. Fortunately, there are also ways to fix the problem and most sites will likely have it fixed within a couple of days.
The exploit is an eye opener for users who have grown complacent about Internet use over the years. Most of the articles I read about Heartbleed don’t even address the user, but the user is the real loser. It’s the user’s information that is gone forever without a trace and the user who will likely bear the brunt of the financial problems caused by Heartbleed. Even if a company is forced to pay some sort of compensation to the user for the loss of information, the compensation will never fully repay the user for the inconvenience and loss of reputation that such an exploit causes. Unfortunately, the user continues to pay a price long after the exploit is forgotten in the form of lost opportunities and an inability to make use of certain services due to a loss of reputation caused by the exploit.
However, I began this post by talking about red herrings—the misdirection often found in the plot of detective novels. I find it interesting that this bug was introduced in December 2011 and is only now making headlines. This means that Heartbleed was a usable, viable means of grabbing information surreptitiously for over two years. It makes me think that there must be other kinds of exploits of this sort that nefarious individuals are currently using to grab every last bit of information possible about you. All the media attention on this one particular exploit is taking the spotlight off those other exploits. Perhaps Heartbleed has outlived its usefulness and was actually made visible by the hacker community on purpose for the purpose of hiding the true activities of these individuals. Of course, there is no way of knowing.
What all this leads me to believe is that individuals must exercise good judgement when engaging in online activities of any sort. No one will fix your credit report or reputation once ruined and counting on the financial community to make amends simply won’t work. These people are rich for a reason—they know how to hold onto their money (as in, you won’t get any). In addition, software is always going to contain errors because programmers are human, so you must count on future exploits every bit as bad (or potentially worse) than Heartbleed. With this in mind, consider taking these suggestions to moderate your online behavior and make it a little more safe.
- Use strong passwords that are easy to remember so you don’t have to write them down.
- Change your password relatively often (every month or two works pretty well).
- Use different passwords on every site you visit.
- Never engage in transactions of any sort with any organization you don’t know.
- Rely on a single credit card for financial transactions and never use the credit card for any other purpose (better yet, rely on an online-specific financial aid such as PayPal).
- Don’t expose more information about yourself than necessary.
There are other ways in which you can protect yourself, but if you follow these few techniques, you can avoid a considerable number of security issues. The point is that Heartbleed is a scary exploit and there are probably a hundred other exploits, just as scary, already in play out there. Someone will always want your information and just handing it over to them seems like a bad idea, so take steps to personally keep your information secure. Let me know your thoughts about security red herrings at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.