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NEW YORK — Security researchers have uncovered a fatal flaw in a key safety feature for surfing the Web — the one that keeps your email, banking, shopping, passwords and communications private.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is it?
It’s called the Heartbleed bug, and it is essentially an information leak.
It starts with a hole in the software that the vast majority of websites on the Internet use to turn your personal information into strings of random numbers and letters. If you see a padlock image in the address bar, there’s a good chance that site is using the encryption software that was impacted by the Heartbleed bug.
What does it do?
Heartbleed allows outsiders to peek into the personal information that was supposed to be protected from snoopers.
The bug allows potential hackers to take advantage of a feature that computers use to see if they’re still online, known as a “heartbeat extension.” But a malicious heartbeat signal could force a computer to divulge secret information stored in its memory, including keys to an encryption tool that turns your credit card information and passwords into indecipherable code.
Once a hacker has the keys to the encryption software, it’s game over — usernames, passwords, bank information and all the other data that you thought were safe are potentially up for grabs. Making matters worse, the Heartbleed bug leaves no traces — you may never know when or if you’ve been hacked.
“You could watch traffic go back and forth,” said Wayne Jackson III, CEO of open source software company Sonatype. “This is a big deal. When you think about the consequences of having visibility into Amazon and Yahoo, that’s pretty scary.”
Who does this affect?
Most major websites are targets, because they rely on this program. A survey conducted by W3Techs show that 81% of sites run on web server programs Apache and Nginx, and both are vulnerable to the Heartbleed bug.
Many popular sites, including Amazon, Yahoo and OKCupid, use those encryption tools. Yahoo, Amazon and OKCupid have updated their websites with a fix for the bug, but many others have not patched their sites yet.
What can I do?
Not much, unfortunately — the websites themselves need to update to a new version of the encryption software to fix the bug. That’s why changing all your passwords right away isn’t a good idea. Websites are all racing to fix the issue, and if you act too quickly, you might change your password on a site that is still vulnerable.
Italian cryptographer Filippo Valsorda launched the “Heartbleed Test,” which purports to tell you if websites are still compromised.
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