A major computer security vulnerability has been discovered with experts cautiously warning it could potentially affect hundreds of thousands of devices, apps and services. However, due to the nature of the bug, it is extremely difficult to know how serious the problem is. "Many people are running around right now trying to work out if this is truly catastrophic or whether we have dodged a bullet," said Prof Alan Woodward, a security expect from the University of Surrey. Google engineers, working with security engineers at Red Hat, have released a patch to fix the problem. It is now up to manufacturers, and the community behind the Linux operating system, to issue the patch to affected software and devices as soon as possible.
In a blog post explaining the discovery, Google's team detailed how a flaw in some commonly-used code could be exploited in a way that allows remote access to a devices - be it a computer, internet router, or other connected piece of equipment. The code can also be within many of the so-called "building blocks" of the web - programming languages such as PHP and Python are affected, as well as systems used when logging in to sites or accessing email. "It's not a sky-is-falling scenario," said Washington D.C-based security researcher Kenneth White. "But it's true there's a very real prospect that a sizable portion of internet-facing services are at risk for hackers to crash, or worse, run remote code to attack others." He said that while there is no publicly known attack code using the flaw, it's a "near certainty" hackers would try to exploit the weakness.
The bug is found in glibc, a open-source library of code that is widely used in internet-connected devices. One particular function is domain look-up. This is when the device converts a typical web domain, say bbc.com, and finds its corresponding IP address so it can access whatever website or service is needed. The domain look-up code in glibc contains a bug that could allow hackers to maliciously implant code within a device's memory. From here, attacks such as remote execution controlling the device over the internet could take place. However, Google said it is very hard to exploit the flaw although their engineers have worked out how. For obvious security reasons they are not making that public.
The scale of the problem is difficult to determine because it is unclear how many devices and systems make use of the glibc code. For instance, Google Android devices use a substitute library which is not vulnerable to this particular attack. But hundreds of thousands of others could be, and so manufacturers are being urged to test their systems using a proof-of-concept attack developed and released on Tuesday by Google's team. Major systems like Windows or OS X are unaffected - but consumers need to be more concerned about smaller connected devices. "Think routers and increasingly anything considered part of the 'Internet of Things'," said Prof Woodward. Worryingly, it appears that the bug was first reported to the team that maintains glibc in July last year, but it was flagged as low priority. The vulnerability is being compared to Shellshock, a bug discovered in 2014 which affected a huge range of computing devices. The bug discovered in glibc has been present since 2008, experts said.