What Heartbleed means for Free Software

The bug in OpenSSL nicknamed “heartbleed” that was discovered this week has been labelled “catastrophic“, “11 out of 10” for seriousness, and credited with “undoing web encryption“. It reached the height of mainstream press yesterday with dedicated front page articles on The Guardian and and The New York Times. This Free Software bug is now known worldwide and is set to remain infamous for years to come. So what does all this mean for the reputation of Free Software?

Software has bugs

Heartbleed is ostensibly a programming oversight, the result of a “missing bounds check“, which basicaly means the program will allow more data input than it should, because the developers didn’t anticipate or test an appropriate scenario. This sort of bug is extremely common in all kinds of software, and Free Software is not immune. Because Free Software makes its source code available to independent audit and review, such bugs are more likely to be found in important apps like OpenSSL. And because high profile Free Software projects are more apt to use automated code testing tools and bug detecting equipment, such bugs are more likely to be blocked from introduction in the first place.

Heartbleed proves that software has bugs, and that Free Software is no exception.

The fix was fast

The Codenomicon Security researchers who discovered the bug notified the OpenSSL team days before making the vulnerability public. The problem was fixed, with updates available for the most important Gnu/Linux servers, before the news even broke, as is the custom with security critical issues. Therefore the fix was extremely fast. Compare that to track records of leading proprietary software companies. Apple’s infamous “goto fail” bug waited four days after public disclosure for a fix to appear, and when it did, the patch concealed its real purpose, making no mention of the critical flaw that it addressed. Microsoft last year admitted to sharing details of vulnerabilities in their software in secret before they were fixed, leaving their own customers exposed to exploitation.

Heartbleed shows that important Free Software can react quickly to pre-empt exposure to publicly known vulnerabilities.

Access enabled discovery

What prevented this bug from going undetected for another two years? Heartbleed’s discovery took place during review of source code that wouldn’t have been possible had OpenSSL been proprietary. Vulnerabilities can be found with or without source code access, but the chances that they’ll be identified by good guys and reported, and not by bad guys who’ll exploit them, are higher when independent auditing of the code is made possible.

Heartbleed demonstrates that Free Software encourages independent review that gets problems fixed.

Tracing the problem

Was the heartbleed bug introduced by the NSA? Is the problem deliberate, or a mistake? We need not wait for a public statement from OpenSSL to sate our curiosity – the full history of the bug is a matter of public record. We know who introduced them problem, when, who approved the change, and the original explanation as to why. We know exactly who to ask about the problem – their names and email addresses are listed beside their code. We can speculate about hidden agendas behind the work in question, but the history of the problem is fundamentally transparent, meaning investigators both inside and outside of OpenSSL can ask the right questions faster and immediately rule out a slew possibilities that initially suggest themselves in such a case.

Heartbleed shows the value of Free Software transparency and accountability.

Catastrophic success

Despite the understandable consternation surrounding heartbleed’s discovery, its impact is actually very encouraging. The shock resulting from the flaw reflects how widely OpenSSL is relied upon for mission critical security, and how well it serves us the rest of the time. 66% Of all webservers have OpenSSL installed via Apache or Nginx according to Netcraft. The list of top shelf security apps using OpenSSL in the back-end is a long one, including PHP (running on 39%  of all servers). The fact that heartbleed has become front page news is a good thing for raising public awareness of the ubiquity of Free Software crypto across business sectors, and for reminding us how much we take its silent and steady protection for granted.

Heartbleed exposes Free Software’s importance and historical trustworthiness to a global audience.

Impact on Free Software?

Many commentators on the heartbleed bug believe it demonstrates weaknesses and flaws in Free Software as a concept and method. But I see the contrary: heartbleed demonstrates how well Free Software is working to deliver security we need, to identify problems with it, and to fix them when they’re found. As a crypto lover and developer it only remains for me to thank the OpenSSL Team for their dedication, and the stirling Free Software they provide to us all.