Does the Heartbleed Bug Mean You Should Stay Off the Internet?

Here are seven things you should know.

| Wed Apr. 9, 2014 4:01 PM EDT

Update: The NSA knew about the Heartbleed bug for at least two years and actively exploited it in order to gather intelligence, Bloomberg reported on Friday. This means that under the pretense of protecting Americans, the NSA intentionally didn't notify millions of Americans that they were vulnerable to identity theft. Go read that book, now.

On Tuesday, news broke that the safeguard many websites use to protect sensitive information on the internet has had a major security flaw for about two years. These sites use a security system called OpenSSL to encrypt data like content, passwords, and Social Security numbers. But thanks to a small coding error in a popular version of OpenSSL, nicknamed "Heartbleed," hackers can potentially steal sensitive data from vulnerable websites. Richard Bejtlich, chief security strategist at FireEye, a network security company, notes that there's no evidence that malicious hackers have exploited the flaw yet. But the secrecy-minded Tor Project, which enables anonymous internet browsing, nevertheless recommended on Monday that, "If you need strong anonymity or privacy on the internet, you might want to stay away from the internet entirely for the next few days while things settle." Here are seven reasons why you might want to stop looking at cat videos right now:

1. Lots of popular websites have the security problem.

According to the New York Times, up to two-thirds of sites on the internet rely on OpenSSL. A user on Github, an open-source coding site, compiled a list of sites that were allegedly vulnerable after a test was conducted on Tuesday. The Github list included Yahoo, Flickr, OkCupid, and Eventbrite, among dozens of other companies. (Some may have since updated their security.) Facebook and Google both released statements confirming they are not affected by the flaw. If you'd like to test a specific site to see whether it's could be exploited—although this doesn't meant that it has—go here.

2. Your most sensitive personal information is at risk.

When websites use SSL, that's a good thing. The security layer is deployed during sensitive transactions to protect data like bank details, social security numbers, and passwords. Runa Sandvik, a staff technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), says that she's heard, "this is even worse than if SSL wasn't used at all, because it's used to protect sensitive information. A site that isn't protected at all, you might not submit sensitive information there in the first place." The good news is, some security researchers are reporting that hackers may not be able to get the private keys to an entire website's content. The bad news is, the flaw is still "a great way to steal passwords from recent logins" according to researchers at Errata Security.

3. Canada is freaking out.

The Canada Revenue Agency announced on Wednesday that it is temporarily shutting down its online services as a result of the Heartbleed bug. The moves come mere weeks before Canadians are expected to file their taxes. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service said in a statement Wednesday that its website has not been affected by the bug.

4. Right now, hackers are racing to get at that information.

"With these things, you can practically hear the shotgun go off. We're in a race now between the attackers and the defenders, to see how quickly attackers can build viable attacks, and how quickly the defenders can put out their defenses," says Christopher Budd, a spokesperson for Trend Micro, a Japanese security software company. He notes that while exploiting the vulnerability right now is fairly difficult, as hackers share information, people could build tool kits and it will become significantly easier.

5. You won't necessarily know if your information has been hacked.

“It’s a serious bug in that it doesn’t leave any trace,” David Chartier, chief executive at Codenomicon, told the New York Times. “Bad guys can access the memory on a machine and take encryption keys, usernames, passwords, valuable intellectual property, and there’s no trace they’ve been there.”

6. It won't be easy for websites to fix the problem.

Budd says fixing the problem is "simple, but not easy." While there is a fixed OpenSSL version that websites can download, it can take time to roll out the new program across a website's entire infrastructure. Budd notes that companies will have to weigh the risk of an attack against the potential that the entire website might come crashing down if a new coding error is introduced. That might dissuade companies from acting quickly. Additionally, after a website installs the new "fix," it needs to update its SSL certificate, a process that can take a little time. Jeremy Gillula, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes that even if a website has downloaded the fix, if it hasn't updated its certificates, it "could still be subject to a man-in-the-middle-attack on its users."

7. Changing your passwords right away isn't necessarily going to help you.

After news of Heartbleed broke, you probably got a lot emails from people telling you to change your passwords. Not so fast, experts say. If you change your password prior to a site getting rid of the bad SSL, your new password could be just as vulnerable as your old one. Sandvik from CDT says, "I'm in the same situation as everyone else. I would look for statements issued by companies before logging in, and if there is no statement, contact them and ask them. Also test their website." Budd advises, "This is one of those situations where the best thing people can do is stick to best practices, don't panic, and wait to hear information from people to know what's going on. If you get instructions, follow them."

Or you know, go read a book.