The Heartbleed Bug and the Political Implications of Vulnerability Management

Today, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) recounted the happenings around the Heartbleed Bug, a pervasively occurring vulnerability of the widespread OpenSSL cryptographic software that was revealed by Google and a Finnish security firm on Monday. Along with the public notification, the information website was established, explaining that “[t]he Heartbleed bug allows anyone on the Internet to read the memory of the systems protected by the vulnerable versions of the OpenSSL software[,]” allowing attackers to eavesdrop on communications and steal sensitive data among others. On his security blog, cryptography guru Bruce Schneier mentioned 500K sites to be vulnerable, classifying the level of how catastrophic the event is on a scale from 1 to 10 as 11.

I found that the coverage of the incident gained another momentum just a few hours ago, when Bloomberg reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) had exploited the vulnerability for “at least two years […] and regularly used it to gather critical intelligence,” according to “two people familiar with the matter.” USA today cited an official statement of the NSA denying knowledge of the Heartbleed Bug.


Reviewing the news of this week, two major implications in terms of cyber security policy seem to be represented by the Heartbleed Bug:

  1. As CBC mentioned: “Disclosing a web problem also means alerting hackers.” The more widespread the vulnerability, the less co-ordinated the patch. This can lead to differing times of exposure to the alerted hackers. On the one hand, the many users of the vulnerable systems (e.g. different banks, or the website of the Canadian Revenue Agency, which has been compromised) patch the vulnerability at different times. On the other hand,  user notification about potential compromises happens at varying paces.  As a result of the Heartbleed disclosure, so CBC, “there has been confusion among consumers about what they should be doing, including whether they should be altering their passwords.” For more on the issue of breach notification on Crossroads, follow this link.
  2. Regardless if the NSA knew about Heartbleed and exploited it or not, intelligence collection does use exploits to accomplish its mission (see also our coverage of exploits in cyber security). The dilemma is as obvious to me: national security interests confront those of millions of users who rely on a system which is known to be insecure to those who are tasked to guard them.


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One Response to “The Heartbleed Bug and the Political Implications of Vulnerability Management”

  1. […] enforcement is likely to have negative impacts on the overall level of security in the Internet. The Heartbleed Bug and how it had reportedly been exploited over the course of a longer time by the National Security […]

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Professor William Snyder

Professor William C. Snyderis a member of the faculty of the Institute for National Security and Counter-terrorism at Syracuse University after fifteen years with the United States Department of Justice.

Ryan D. White

Ryan D. WhiteRyan is currently a third year law student at Syracuse University College of Law, and is also pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Ryan spent time with Homeland Security Investigations while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, and spent his first summer of law school as clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of New York. He is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and participates in the Veteran’s Legal Clinic. Full biography

Shelby E. Mann

Ryan D. WhiteShelby is a second year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law. She is the 2018-9 Editor in Chief of the Syracuse Law Review, as well as a member of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and the senior editor for the Syrian Accountability Project. During her final year at the University of Missouri, she served as a full-time news producer for ABC 17 News. Shelby spent her first summer of law school at the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office in Memphis, Tenn., in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Unit. Full biography

Christopher w. FolkChristopher W. Folk

is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. A non-traditional student, Christopher returned to academia after spending nearly twenty years in the high tech industry. Christopher served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. In Applied Economics and Business Management, attended Northeastern University’s High-Tech MBA Program and received a M.S. In Computer Information Systems. Christopher previously worked in Software Engineering. Christopher is currently serving his second term as Town Justice for the Town of Waterloo. Christopher externed with a Cybersecurity firm in the Washington, D.C. area between his first and second year at SU College of Law. Full biography

Anna Maria Castillo

Anna Maria Castillois 2016 graduate of Syracuse College of Law. She also holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has interned at a London-based think-tank that specializes in transnational terrorism and global security and at the legal department of a defense contractor. She served as an executive editor in the Syracuse Law Review. Full biography

Jennifer A. CamilloJennifer A. Camillo

is a 2015 graduate of Syracuse College of Law and is a prosecutor. She has served as a law clerk in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and the Cayuga County District Attorney’s Office and as an extern in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. She was a member of the Syracuse National Trial Team and was awarded the Tiffany Cup by the New York Bar Association for her trial advocacy achievements.

Tara J. PistoreseTara J. Pistorese

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Benjamin Zaiser

is both a scholar and a Federal Agent of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. (Opinions expressed here are his own and not any part of official duty.) Full biography


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