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
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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.

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