Virus and Protocol Scares Happen Every Day — But Don't Let Them Worry You

An SSL security flaw got bloggers hot and bothered, but it's the vendors who need to take action

Last month, researchers found a security flaw in the SSL protocol, which is used to protect sensitive web data. The protocol is used for online commerce, webmail, and social networking sites. Basically, hackers could hijack an SSL session and execute commands without the knowledge of either the client or the server. The list of affected products is enormous.

If this sounds serious to you, you’re right. It is serious. Given that, what should you do now? Should you not use SSL until it’s fixed, and only pay for internet purchases over the phone? Should you download some kind of protection? Should you take some other remedial action? What?

If you read the IT press regularly, you’ll see this sort of question again and again. The answer for this particular vulnerability, as for pretty much any other vulnerability you read about, is the same: do nothing. That’s right, nothing. Don’t panic. Don’t change your behaviour. Ignore the problem, and let the vendors figure it out.

There are several reasons for this. One, it’s hard to figure out which vulnerabilities are serious and which are not. Vulnerabilities such as this happen multiple times a month. They affect different software, different operating systems, and different web protocols. The press either mentions them or not, somewhat randomly; just because it’s in the news doesn’t mean it’s serious.

Two, it’s hard to figure out if there’s anything you can do. Many vulnerabilities affect operating systems or internet protocols. The only sure fix would be to avoid using your computer. Some vulnerabilities have surprising consequences. The SSL vulnerability mentioned above could be used to hack Twitter. Did you expect that? I sure didn’t.

Three, the odds of a particular vulnerability affecting you are small. There are a lot of fish in the internet, and you’re just one of billions.

Four, often you can’t do anything. These vulnerabilities affect clients and servers, individuals and corporations. A lot of your data isn’t under your direct control — it’s on your web-based email servers, in some corporate database, or in a cloud computing application. If a vulnerability affects the computers running Facebook, for example, your data is at risk, whether you log in to Facebook or not.

It’s much smarter to have a reasonable set of default security practices and continue doing them. This includes:

1. Install an antivirus program if you run Windows, and configure it to update daily. It doesn’t matter which one you use; they’re all about the same. For Windows, I like the free version of AVG Internet Security . Apple Mac and Linux users can ignore this, as virus writers target the operating system with the largest market share.

2. Configure your OS and network router properly. Microsoft‘s operating systems come with a lot of security enabled by default; this is good. But have someone who knows what they’re doing check the configuration of your router, too.

3. Turn on automatic software updates. This is the mechanism by which your software patches itself in the background, without you having to do anything. Make sure it’s turned on for your computer, OS, security software, and any applications that have the option. Yes, you have to do it for everything, as they often have separate mechanisms.

4. Show common sense regarding the internet. This might be the hardest thing, and the most important. Know when an email is real, and when you shouldn’t click on the link. Know when a website is suspicious. Know when something is amiss.

5. Perform regular backups. This is vital. If you’re infected with something, you may have to reinstall your operating system and applications. Good backups ensure you don’t lose your data — documents, photographs, music — if that becomes necessary.

That’s basically it. I could give a longer list of safe computing practices, but this short one is likely to keep you safe. After that, trust the vendors. They spent all last month scrambling to fix the SSL vulnerability, and they’ll spend all this month scrambling to fix whatever new vulnerabilities are discovered. Let that be their problem.

Categories: Computer and Information Security

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.