Agencies react to 'Heartbleed' security hole

Heartbleed Logo

A dangerous crack in one of the cornerstones of Internet security has corporate juggernauts like Yahoo, Google and Amazon Web Services scrambling to install security patches, but federal agency IT operations also have work to do as well.

The company that discovered the "Heartbleed" flaw, Codenomicon, said the defect lets attackers access web servers to eavesdrop on communications, steal data and impersonate services and users. It added that Heartbleed is not really a design flaw, but a "programming mistake in the popular OpenSSL library that provides cryptographic services such as SSL/TLS [secure sockets layer/transport layer security] to the applications and services." Computer security experts have said that the resulting damage is difficult to gauge, as the error leaves no log files or other traces of access gained via the exploit.

According to Codenomicon, OpenSSL's reach is enormous. "Your popular social site, your company's site, commerce site, hobby site, site you install software from or even sites run by your government might be using vulnerable OpenSSL," it said.

Yet, as news of the flaw spread, several federal agencies said Heartbleed has not compromised their web services. Agency officials stressed, however, that they are taking a closer look at operations to fully measure the impact.

"Due to CMS’s security protections, consumer accounts are not affected by this vulnerability," a Centers for Medicare and Medicaid spokesperson said. "Additionally, other CMS consumer accounts, including, were not affected by this vulnerability. Per standard practice, CMS continues to work with the states to monitor this issue and ensure that appropriate security measures continue to be in place."

Similarly, the Internal Revenue Service said Heartbleed is not an issue for its operations. "The IRS continues to accept tax returns as normal," agency officials said in a statement to FCW. "Our systems continue operating and are not affected by this bug, and we are not aware of any security vulnerabilities related to this situation."

(Canada's tax authority, the Canada Revenue Agency, took a different approach -- shutting down its website just weeks before that country's tax deadline because of Heartbleed's potential impact.)

In an April 10 email statement, the General Services Administration told FCW that all agencies must take a close look at their operations to determine exposure to the Heartbleed problem. "Agencies have to do a full evaluation of where and when they've used OpenSSL, regardless if they are using open-source or not. OpenSSL might be [utilized] in commercial or closed-source applications."

According to Mamoon Yunus, chief executive of API and cloud gateway provider Forum Systems, OpenSSL is pervasive in enterprise IT systems, from load balancers to web and application servers. Some federal agencies might be less vulnerable than others, he said, depending on their network architecture and security structure. Architectures with more centralized security operations might be better able to react to the situation, pushing out immediate patches for the flaw.

The flaw "will definitely have an impact on federal users," said Michael Sutton, vice president of security research at security cloud provider Zscaler. Exactly what that impact will be, however, is not easily determined, he said. Patches for the flaw can be applied, but that's only the beginning of the work. Determining if an agency has OpenSSL in its operations is the first step, he said, but it might not be readily apparent that it has, since it can be buried in closed-source software and gear.

Federal agencies, said Yunus, might have to begin revoke all security keys used to encrypt data, then reissue those keys and security certificates, a process that could take a while.

In the long run, though, Heartbleed probably won't dramatically affect federal open-source initiatives, Yunus said. “The open source and agile development genie can't be put back in the box," said Yunus.

A key deterrent in avoiding a Heartbleed kind of open source mistake, he advised, is to keep security operations separate from application development activities.

"18F [GSA's new digital incubator that embraces lean and agile development processes], or any other technology team developing open-source software, shouldn't be more or less concerned," said the GSA statement in the wake of the Heartbleed news.

The agency said open source can also provide more security. "One critical advantage of open-source is that it allows talented developers across the world to review code for bugs," it said. "That's exactly what happened with the discovery of Heartbleed. Closed-source applications aren't more secure - we just don't know about their vulnerabilities."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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