Industry Observations-Technical Insight-Tools and Applications-Vulnerabilities

WhiteHat Security Observations and Advice about the Heartbleed OpenSSL Exploit

The Heartbleed SSL attack is one of the most significant, and media-covered, vulnerabilities affecting the Internet in recent years. According to Netcraft, 17.5% of SSL-enabled sites on the Internet were vulnerable to the Heartbleed SSL attack just prior to its disclosure.

The vulnerable versions of OpenSSL were first released to the public 2 years ago. The implications of 2 years of exposure to this vulnerability are significant, and we will explore that more at the end of this article. First – immediate details:

This attack does not require any MitM (Man in the Middle) or other complex setups that SSL exploits usually require. This attack can be executed directly and anonymously against any webserver/device running a vulnerable version OpenSSL, and yield a wealth of sensitive information.

WhiteHat Security’s Threat Research Center (TRC) began testing customers for vulnerability to this attack immediately, using a custom SSL-testing tool from our TRC R&D labs. Our initial conclusions were that the frequency with which sites were vulnerable to this attack was low on production applications being monitored by the WhiteHat Sentinel security service. In our first test sample, covering 18,000 applications, we found a vulnerability rate of about 2% – much lower than Netcraft’s 17.5% vulnerability rate for all SSL-enabled websites. This may be a result of a biased sample, since we only evaluated applications under Sentinel service. (This may be because application owners who use Sentinel are already more security-conscious than most.)

While the frequency of vulnerability to the Heartbleed SSL attack is low: those that are vulnerable are severely vulnerable. Everything in memory on the webserver/device running a vulnerable version of OpenSSL is exposed. This includes:

  • UserIDs
  • Passwords
  • PII (Personally Identifiable Information)
  • SSL certificate private keys (e.g.-SSL using this cert will never be private again, if compromised)
  • Any private crypto keys
  • SSL-based Chat
  • SSL-based VPN
  • SSL-based anything
  • Connection Strings (Database userIDs/Passwords) to back-end databases, mainframes, LDAP, partner systems, etc. loaded in memory
  • Additional vulnerabilities in source code, that are loaded into memory, with precise locations (e.g.-Blind SQL injection)
  • Basically any code or data in memory on the server running a vulnerable version of OpenSSL is rendered in clear-text to all attackers

The most important thing you need to know regarding the above: this attack leaves no traces. No logs. Nothing suspect. It is a nice, friendly, read-only anonymous dump of memory. This is the digital equivalent of accidentally leaving a copy of your corporate diary, with all sorts of private secrets, on the seat of the mass-transit bus for everyone to read – including strangers you will never know. Your only recourse for secrets like passwords now is the delete key.

The list of vulnerable applications published to date includes mainstream web and mobile applications, security devices with web interfaces, and critical business applications handling sensitive and federally-regulated data.

This is a seriously sub-optimal situation.

Timeline of the Heartbleed SSL attack and WhiteHat Security’s response:

April 7th: Heartbleed 0day attack published. Websites vulnerable to the attack included major websites/email services that the majority of the Internet uses daily, and many mobile applications that use OpenSSL.

April 8th: WhiteHat TRC begins testing customers’ sites for vulnerability to Heartbleed SSL exploitation. In parallel, WhiteHat R&D begins QAing new automated tests to enable Sentinel services to identify this vulnerability at scale.

April 9th: WhiteHat TRC identifies roughly 350 websites vulnerable to Heartbleed SSL attack, out of initial sample of 18,000 production applications. We find an initial 1.9% average exploitability but this percentage appears to drop rapidly in the next 48 hours.

April 10th: WhiteHat R&D releases new Sentinel Heartbleed SSL vulnerability tests, enabling Sentinel to automatically identify if any applications under Sentinel service are vulnerable to Heartbleed SSL attacks with every scan. This brings test coverage to over 35,000 applications. Average vulnerability rate drops to below 1% by EOD April 10th.

Analysis: the more applications we scan using the new Heartbleed SSL attack tests, the fewer sites (by percent) we find vulnerable to this attack. We suspect this is because most customers have moved quickly to patch this vulnerability, due to the extreme severity of the vulnerability and the intense media coverage of the issue.

Speculation: we suspect that this issue will quickly disappear for most important SSL-enabled applications on the Internet – especially applications under some type of active DAST or SAST scanning service. It will likely linger on with small sites hosted by providers that do not offer (or pay attention to) any form of security patching service.

We also expect this issue to persist with internal (non-Internet-facing) applications and devices that use SSL, but which are commonly not tested or monitored by tools or services capable of detecting this vulnerability, and that are less frequently upgraded.

While the attack surface of internal network applications & devices may appear to be much smaller than Internet-facing applications, simple one-click exploits are already available on the Internet, usable by anyone on your network with access to a web browser. (link to exploit code:

This means that any internal user on your network who downloads one of these exploits is capable of extracting everything in memory from any device or application on your internal network that is vulnerable. This includes:

  • Internal routers and switches
  • Firewalls and IDS systems
  • Human Resources applications
  • Finance and payroll applications
  • Pretty much any application or device running a vulnerable version of OpenSSL
  • Agents exploiting internal devices will see all network traffic or application data in memory on the affected device/application

Due to the fact that most of these internal applications and devices lack the type of logging and alerting that would notify Information Security teams of active abuse of this vulnerability, our concern is that in coming months these internal devices & applications may provide rich grounds for exploitation that may never be discovered.

Conclusion & Recommendations:

The scope, impact, and ease-of-exploitation of this vulnerability make it one of the worst in Internet history. However, patches are readily available for most systems, and the impact risk of patching seems minimal. It appears most of our customers have already patched the majority of their Internet-facing systems against this exploit.

However, this vulnerability has existed for up to 2 years in OpenSSL implementations. We will likely never know if anyone has been actively exploiting this vulnerability, due to difficultly in logging/tracking attacks. If your organization is concerned about this, we recommend that — in addition to patching this vulnerability — SSL certificates of suspect systems be revoked and re-issued. We also recommend that all end-user passwords and system passwords be changed on suspect systems.

Is this vulnerability a “boy that cried wolf” hype situation? Bruce Schneier has another interesting perspective on this:

WhiteHat will continue to share more information about this vulnerability as further information becomes available.

General reference material:

Vulnerability details:

Exploit details: