NEW YORK — 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 unknown. The security hole exists on a vast number of the Internet’s Web servers and went undetected for more than two years. While it’s conceivable that the flaw was never discovered by hackers, it’s nearly impossible to tell. Given the scope of the issue, security experts projected that it could take years to sew up all the holes created by the Heartbleed bug.
There isn’t much that people can do to protect themselves until the affected websites implement a fix.
Here are answers to some common questions 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. It appears the bug was introduced into OpenSSL by a programming mistake that got pushed out as websites around the world updated their version of OpenSSL.
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 Tuesday 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.
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. Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer with security software maker F-Secure of Helsinki, said computer users could immediately change passwords on accounts, but they would have to do so again if their operators notify them that they are vulnerable and once they have followed steps to clean up the mess.
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 effected 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.
Q: What about Amazon?
A. Ty Rogers, a spokesman for online commerce giant Amazon.com Inc, said “Amazon.com is not affected.” He declined to elaborate.
Q: What are other sites saying about their security?
A. TurboTax, the most popular tax preparation software, said that its website is now protected against Heartbleed. Google is so confident that it inoculated itself against the Heartbleed bug before any damage could be done that the Mountain View, Calif., company is telling its users they don’t have to change the passwords they use to access Gmail, YouTube and other product accounts. Facebook also believes its online social network has purged the Heartbleed threat. But the Menlo Park, Calif., company encouraged users to “set up a unique password for your Facebook account that you don’t use on other sites.”
Q: What if I don’t know whether a site I use could be affected?
A: Go to https://lastpass. com/heartbleed/ for an OpenSSL checker, where you can enter site names to check.
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.The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and Reuters contributed to this report. The Associated Press