SAN FRANCISCO — A confounding computer bug called Heartbleed is causing major security headaches across the Internet as websites scramble to fix the problem and Web surfers wonder whether they should change their passwords to prevent theft of their sensitive information.
The breakdown revealed this week affects a widely used encryption technology that is supposed to protect online accounts for a variety of online communications and electronic commerce.
Security researchers who uncovered the threat fear the possibility that computer hackers may have been secretly exploiting the problem before its discovery. It’s also possible that no one took advantage of the flaw before its existence was announced late Monday.
Although there is now a way to close the security hole, there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned, said David Chartier, CEO of Codenomicon. A small team from the Finnish security firm diagnosed Heartbleed while working independently from another Google Inc. researcher who also discovered the threat.
Citing the security risks posed by Heartbleed, the Canada Revenue Agency shut off public access to its website “to safeguard the integrity of the information we hold,” according to a notice posted on its website Wednesday. The lockdown comes just three weeks from Canada’s April 30 deadline for filing 2013 tax returns.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service said in a statement Wednesday that it’s not affected by the security hole. TurboTax, the most popular tax preparation software, also issued a Wednesday statement reassuring people that its website is now protected against Heartbleed.
Computer security experts are still advising people to consider changing all their online passwords.
“I would change every password everywhere because it’s possible something was sniffed out,” said Wolfgang Kandek, chief technology officer for Qualys, a maker of security-analysis software. “You don’t know because an attack wouldn’t have left a distinct footprint.”
Google is so confident that it inoculated itself against the Heartbleed bug before any damage could be done that the Mountain View, Calif., company is telling its users they don’t have to change the passwords they use.
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What Web bug means to you
Q: What is Heartbleed and why is it a big deal?
A: Heartbleed affects the encryption technology designed to protect online accounts. It was discovered by a team of researchers from the Finnish security firm Codenomicon, along with a Google Inc. researcher who was working separately.
It’s unclear whether any information has been stolen as a result of Heartbleed, but security experts are particularly worried about the bug because it went undetected for more than two years.
Q: How does it work?
A: Heartbleed creates an opening in SSL/TLS, an encryption technology marked by the small, closed padlock and “https:” on Web browsers to show that traffic is secure. The flaw makes it possible to snoop on Internet traffic even if the padlock is closed. Interlopers can also grab the keys for deciphering encrypted data without the website owners knowing.
The problem affects only the variant known as OpenSSL — one of the most widely used online.
Q: So if the problem has been identified, it’s been fixed. Right?
A: It depends. A fixed version of OpenSSL has been released, but it’s up to individual website administrators to put it into place.
Yahoo Inc. said Tuesday that most of its popular services — including sports, finance and Tumblr — had been fixed, but work was still being done on other products.
Q: What can I do to protect myself?
A: Ultimately, you’ll need to change your passwords, but that won’t do any good until the sites you use adopt the fix. It’s also up to the services affected to let users know of the potential risks.
Q: I plan to file my income taxes online. Is that safe, considering how much information is involved?
A: The IRS released a statement Wednesday saying it’s not affected by the bug. It advised taxpayers to continue filing their returns as they normally would.