Before it was patched and publicly disclosed a week ago, the Heartbleed bug lived inside OpenSSL for about two years. Amid last week's server-patching, password-resetting frenzy, some folks wondered whether hackers had known about the bug—and used it to pilfer people's personal data—before everybody else.
Well, wouldn't you know it, there's reason to think the NSA did just that. A recent story by Bloomberg quotes two unnamed sources "familiar with the matter" who claim the NSA has known about the Heartbleed bug for "at least two years." The NSA, those sources claim, "regularly used [the bug] to gather critical intelligence," all the while making no effort to alert OpenSSL's developers to the problem. As Bloomberg goes on to say:
Putting the Heartbleed bug in its arsenal, the NSA was able to obtain passwords and other basic data that are the building blocks of the sophisticated hacking operations at the core of its mission, but at a cost. Millions of ordinary users were left vulnerable to attack from other nations' intelligence arms and criminal hackers.
The NSA has gone on record to deny these allegations. On Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a statement, "The Federal government was not aware of the recently identified vulnerability in OpenSSL until it was made public in a private sector cybersecurity report. . . . If the Federal government, including the intelligence community, had discovered this vulnerability prior to last week, it would have been disclosed to the community responsible for OpenSSL."
Funnily enough, however, the statement doesn't end there. It goes on to add:
When Federal agencies discover a new vulnerability in commercial and open source software – a so-called "Zero day" vulnerability because the developers of the vulnerable software have had zero days to fix it – it is in the national interest to responsibly disclose the vulnerability rather than to hold it for an investigative or intelligence purpose.
In response to the recommendations of the President's Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, the White House has reviewed its policies in this area and reinvigorated an interagency process for deciding when to share vulnerabilities. This process is called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process. Unless there is a clear national security or law enforcement need, this process is biased toward responsibly disclosing such vulnerabilities.
In short, it's in the national interest for the NSA to disclose zero-day exploits... unless it isn't. Either way, disclosure is a matter of "bias," not policy. And this is the newly "reinvigorated" process for vulnerability disclosures. The ODNI statement doesn't outline what the pre-invigoration process was, or what biases it might have involved.
Considering the NSA's recent history of misleading assertions, I'm a little hesitant to believe the official line over the Bloomberg story. Besides, even if the NSA didn't exploit this particular bug, there's no guarantee the agency won't exploit others—or that it isn't already doing so.
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