University discovers technological vulnerability
The ETSU Information Technology department became aware in early April of a vulnerability in the Linux operating system, a platform used by ETSU and institutions worldwide.
An unintentional programming error in the Linux open Secure Socket Layer led to a "Heartbleed," creating the potential for a leak in private information.
"We do run Linux servers and we do have servers that have open SSL on them," said Mark Bragg, associate vice president for information technology. "So we immediately started checking them and we did not find any vulnerabilities on any campus servers. This includes programs like Goldlink."
Google soon notified the university that Goldmail was secure. TouchNet, a server that performs credit card validations for the university, also had a vulnerability, but the business managed to patch it.
D2L was the only campus service that experienced prolonged problems. Currently, no ETSU students have come forward with concerns about their D2L accounts.
An SSL lock icon in the search bar indicates that a user is on a safe webpage, guaranteeing that no one will be able to gain access to the user's data.
"Underneath the hood of the SSL there's a function called 'Heartbeat,' that's where 'Heartbleed' comes from," Bragg said. "Heartbeat basically allows the user to ask the server if it's still operating correctly."
In an attempt to assess a server's health, a user sends a line of text to the Heartbeat address and the server responds with the same line of text. Sending a line of text to the server involves dividing the information into two parameters, the 'string' and the length. The string indicates the actual text being sent while the length specifies the number of characters in the text.
"What the programmers found was that the length did not match the string specified by the user," Bragg said. "A user could pass a different length, one with a greater number of characters, and receive a larger amount of information from the server."
The data sent back to the user could include private information, like passwords. But, taking advantage of a Heartbleed vulnerability is a very erratic practice. Servers contain a massive amount of data, and a hacker has a relatively low probability of obtaining valuable information. Despite this low probability, the information technology department encourages caution.
"If students were using D2L during this period, it's a good idea for them to change their password," Bragg said. "This is on the remote chance that their username and password were captured."
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