A think tank opinion piece that claims the threat from the Heartbleed bug is overblown has sparked a debate among researchers over the seriousness of the OpenSSL flaw.
In his column entitled "Heartbleed: Cybersecurity as Melodrama," James Andrew Lewis, director and senior fellow of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, argued Tuesday that cybercriminals would likely choose a much easier, and more effective, way than Heartbleed to steal valuable assets from companies.
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"There are several steps between compromise and money," Lewis said. "Cybercriminals, a professional lot, use the most efficient techniques. These are people looking to make millions of dollars."
Heartbleed would not easily translate into the "industrial-scale crime" hackers seek, Lewis said. Examples would include the Target breach last year that led to the theft of millions of credit- and debit-card numbers. Such breaches typically occur through email phishing attacks aimed directly at the company, or in the case of Target, one of its suppliers.
In a recent Heartbleed challenge, one researcher had to send 2.5 million requests against a test server to get its private encryption key, while another participant had to make 100,000 requests. In Lewis' opinion, such an exploit would not be cost effective for most cybercriminals.
"They engage in industrial-scale crime, not piecework hacking of individual accounts," Lewis said. "Stealing your password, accessing your account, getting your credit card information, and then figuring out how to do this hundreds of thousands of times and monetize the date [sic] is too much work."
Joni Brennan, executive director of the Kantara Initiative, which is focused on developing better digital identity management, agreed that there is a "sensational element" to the Heartbleed media coverage.
"Likely this story has more relevance from the perspective of mass surveillance and vulnerabilities that underpin the Internet as a whole versus criminal behavior," Brennan said. "As the author notes, criminals tend to be much more sophisticated and targeted."
Among experts contacted, Brennan was in the minority. The others believed Heartbleed deserved all the attention it was getting from software and website developers and hardware manufacturers, all scrambling to patch products.