NSA Reportedly Exploited Heartbleed For Spying — But Strongly Denies the Allegation

Because the agency hasn’t already reportedly done enough.

National Journal
Matt Berman and Dustin Volz
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Matt Berman and Dustin Volz
April 11, 2014, 11:20 a.m.

When it bleeds, it pours.

The Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency re­portedly knew of and ex­ploited the massive In­ter­net bug re­vealed to the pub­lic this week and known now as “Heart­bleed” in or­der to gath­er in­tel­li­gence in­form­a­tion on tar­gets.

This new rev­el­a­tion packs an ex­tra twist that oth­er re­cent NSA leaks have lacked: Re­gard­less of its pur­pose for in­tel­li­gence gath­er­ing, the NSA may have known for years about a his­tor­ic se­cur­ity flaw that may have af­fected up to two-thirds of the In­ter­net. In­stead of try­ing to re­pair that flaw—which has po­ten­tially im­pacted count­less people—the NSA re­portedly ma­nip­u­lated it in secret.

“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,” Bloomberg first re­por­ted Fri­day, cit­ing two people “fa­mil­i­ar” with the mat­ter. “Mil­lions of or­din­ary users were left vul­ner­able to at­tack from oth­er na­tions’ in­tel­li­gence arms and crim­in­al hack­ers.”

In a state­ment late Fri­day af­ter­noon, the NSA denied the Bloomberg re­port. “NSA was not aware of the re­cently iden­ti­fied vul­ner­ab­il­ity in OpenSSL, the so-called Heart­bleed vul­ner­ab­il­ity, un­til it was made pub­lic in a private-sec­tor cy­ber­se­cur­ity re­port,” said agency spokes­wo­man Vanee Vines. “Re­ports that say oth­er­wise are wrong.”

In a fol­low-up state­ment, NSC Spokes­per­son Caitlin Hay­den said that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion “takes ser­i­ously its re­spons­ib­il­ity to help main­tain an open, in­ter­op­er­able, se­cure and re­li­able In­ter­net. 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.”

Un­like pre­vi­ous state­ments about al­leged NSA activ­it­ies, the state­ments made by the NSA and White House today are defin­it­ive, with little room for dif­fer­ing in­ter­pret­a­tions.

The Heart­bleed bug was re­vealed pub­licly for the first time earli­er this week, and has been de­scribed by nu­mer­ous cy­ber­se­cur­ity ex­perts as one of the worst se­cur­ity glitches the web has ever en­countered. Heart­bleed is caused by a minor two-year-old flaw in soft­ware cod­ing of a pro­gram known as OpenSSL that is meant to provide ex­tra pro­tec­tion to web­sites.

Con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion has been paid to Heart­bleed’s po­ten­tial use by crim­in­al hack­ers to col­lect war chests filled with on­line pass­words, per­son­al in­form­a­tion and bank­ing data, but it re­mains un­clear wheth­er any such bad act­ors knew of or ex­ploited it pri­or to its dis­clos­ure. A fix was rolled out five days ago, but con­cerns per­sist that much of the In­ter­net’s se­cur­ity has been com­prom­ised.

Some In­ter­net free­dom and pri­vacy groups began spec­u­lat­ing that in­tel­li­gence agen­cies may have ex­ploited Heart­bleed for sur­veil­lance pur­poses shortly after news of the bug broke earli­er this week. The Elec­tron­ic Fron­ti­er Found­a­tion sug­ges­ted earli­er ex­ploit­a­tions of the bug de­tec­ted in Novem­ber of last year “makes a little more sense for in­tel­li­gence agen­cies than for com­mer­cial or life­style mal­ware.”

Earli­er Fri­day, the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity is­sued guid­ance on Heart­bleed, say­ing that “every­one has a role to play to en­sur­ing [sic] our na­tion’s cy­ber­se­cur­ity.”

This post was up­dated Fri­day af­ter­noon after the NSA state­ment was re­leased.

What We're Following See More »
REPEATS CONTROVERSIAL CLAIM
Trump: Clinton “Doesn’t Have The Stamina” to be President
6 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

At the end of the debate, moderator Lester Holt asked Donald Trump if he stands by his statement that Hillary Clinton didn't have the look of a president. Trump responded by saying Holt misquoted him, instead saying that Clinton "doesn't have the stamina." Clinton responded by saying that when Trump visits 112 countries as secretary of state, he can talk to her about stamina.

WIDELY DEBUNKED CLAIM
Trump: Clinton Camp Started Birtherism
6 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump, when pressed by Lester Holt on why he finally admitted that President Obama was born in America, repeated his widely debunked claim that it was started by Hillary Clinton.

“AFRICAN AMERICANS” ARE “LIVING IN HELL”
Conversation Shifts to Race
7 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Hillary Clinton went point by point on how race can so often determine the treatment that people receive, mentioning recent shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte, calling for restored trust between communities and police, and demanding criminal justice reform. Trump responded by calling for law and order and touting his endorsements from police unions. He then said that “African Americans are living in hell,” saying they are just walking down the street and getting “shot ... being decimated by crime."

JUST AS CLINTON INVITES VIEWERS TO VISIT HER SITE
During Debate, Trump Site Appears to Be Down
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

Just as Hillary Clinton was inviting debate viewers to visit her site for real-time fact checking, there appeared to be a problem with Donald Trump's own campaign website. For about a 15-minute period, a blank page or an error message appeared when we tried to load the Trump site.

INTERRUPTS CLINTON MULTIPLE TIMES
Trump Comes Out Swinging
7 hours ago
DEBATE UPDATE

Donald Trump has come out in the first segment of this debate raring to go. Trump has interrupted nearly every answer being given by Hillary Clinton, talking over her time and again. Clinton is sticking to her guns, smiling while Trump speaks and then calling on people to go to her website and see the fact checking being done.

×