Google Knew About Heartbleed and Didn’t Tell the Government

Federal systems remained vulnerable to hackers even after researchers identified the bug.

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Brendan Sasso
April 14, 2014, 11:31 a.m.

Google knew about a crit­ic­al flaw in In­ter­net se­cur­ity, but it didn’t alert any­one in the gov­ern­ment.

Neel Me­hta, a Google en­gin­eer, first dis­covered “Heart­bleed” — a bug that un­der­mines the widely used en­cryp­tion tech­no­logy OpenSSL — some time in March. A team at the Finnish se­cur­ity firm Code­nomi­con dis­covered the flaw around the same time. Google was able to patch most of its ser­vices — such as email, search, and You­Tube — be­fore the com­pan­ies pub­li­cized the bug on April 7.

The re­search­ers also no­ti­fied a hand­ful of oth­er com­pan­ies about the bug be­fore go­ing pub­lic. The se­cur­ity firm Cloud­Flare, for ex­ample, said it fixed the flaw on March 31.

But the White House said Fri­day that no one in the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment knew about the prob­lem un­til April. The ad­min­is­tra­tion made the state­ment to deny an earli­er Bloomberg re­port that the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency had been ex­ploit­ing Heart­bleed for years.

“Re­ports that NSA or any oth­er part of the gov­ern­ment were aware of the so-called Heart­bleed vul­ner­ab­il­ity be­fore April 2014 are wrong. The Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment was not aware of the re­cently iden­ti­fied vul­ner­ab­il­ity in OpenSSL un­til it was made pub­lic in a private sec­tor cy­ber­se­cur­ity re­port,” Caitlin Hay­den, a White House spokes­wo­man, said in a state­ment.

“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.”

Hay­den emailed to cla­ri­fy that the “private sec­tor cy­ber­se­cur­ity re­port” refers to the April 7 an­nounce­ment. 

Asked wheth­er Google dis­cussed Heart­bleed with the gov­ern­ment, a com­pany spokes­wo­man said only that the “se­cur­ity of our users’ in­form­a­tion is a top pri­or­ity” and that Google users do not need to change their pass­words.

Com­pan­ies of­ten wait to pub­li­cize a se­cur­ity flaw so they can have time to patch their own ser­vices. But keep­ing the bug secret from the U.S. gov­ern­ment may have left fed­er­al sys­tems vul­ner­able to hack­ers. The IRS said it’s not aware of any vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies in its sys­tem, but oth­er agen­cies that use OpenSSL could have been leak­ing private in­form­a­tion to hack­ers. 

The gov­ern­ment en­cour­ages com­pan­ies to re­port cy­ber­se­cur­ity is­sues to the U.S. Com­puter Emer­gency Read­i­ness Team, which is housed in the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment. US-CERT has a 24-hour op­er­a­tions cen­ter that re­sponds to se­cur­ity threats and vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies.

Chris­toph­er Sog­hoi­an, the prin­cip­al tech­no­lo­gist for the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, said the U.S. gov­ern­ment only has it­self to blame if tech com­pan­ies don’t trust it to handle sens­it­ive se­cur­ity in­form­a­tion.

He said that be­cause gov­ern­ment agen­cies of­ten share in­form­a­tion with each oth­er, there’s no way for a com­pany to be sure the NSA won’t get in­form­a­tion shared with an­oth­er agency and use it to hack in­to private com­mu­nic­a­tions.

“I sus­pect that over the past eight months, many com­pan­ies have taken a real hard look at their ex­ist­ing policies about tip­ping off the U.S. gov­ern­ment,” he said. “That’s the price you pay when you’re act­ing like an out-of-con­trol of­fens­ive ad­versary.”


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