Even If NSA Didn't Use Heartbleed In The Past, It Still Could Be Making Use Of It
from the this-isn't-over dept
We’ve already been discussing how President Obama has told the NSA it can continue exploiting computer security flaws, rather than fixing them, and also how the NSA’s offensive and defensive roles are incompatible with each other. However, I wanted to highlight a more concerning point raised by Julian Sanchez about the NSA and Heartbleed in the article about the NSA’s dual role: and it’s that, even granting the fact that the NSA might not have known about Heartbleed until it became public, the NSA could still use it to their advantage, in part because it has so much old encrypted data stored up:
Here, however, is the really crucial point to recognize: NSA doesn’t need to have known about Heartbleed all along to take advantage of it.
The agency’s recently-disclosed minimization procedures permit “retention of all communications that are enciphered.” In other words, when NSA encounters encryption it can’t crack, it’s allowed to – and apparently does – vacuum up all that scrambled traffic and store it indefinitely, in hopes of finding a way to break into it months or years in the future. As security experts recently confirmed, Heartbleed can be used to steal a site’s master encryption keys – keys that would suddenly enable anyone with a huge database of encrypted traffic to unlock it, at least for the vast majority of sites that don’t generate new keys as a safeguard against retroactive exposure.
If NSA moved quickly enough – as dedicated spies are supposed to – the agency could have exploited the bug to steal those keys before most sites got around to fixing the bug, gaining access to a vast treasure trove of stored traffic.
As Sanchez notes, this creates a dilemma for those who discover such flaws. Normally, they should want to reveal such things to the NSA to help with protecting networks. But doing so now might expose more risk. And, in fact, it seems likely that the NSA was aware of the bug prior to its revelation to the public. Note that in its denial of the Bloomberg story, it just says it wasn’t aware prior to “April 2014,” but not on which date in April it found out about it. Thus, it’s likely the NSA had a heads up, and could collect a bunch of private keys to use against its encrypted data store for a few days before everyone else was informed to fix the vulnerability.