You might not understand the how Heartbleed works, but you definitely heard about it this week. And with it, that drippy, maroon, bleeding heart logo — which is part of what made the story so memorable. In fact, the way Heartbleed was presented by the team that discovered it is a model for how technology issues should be communicated to the public.
Everyone was right to freak out when Finnish security firm Codenomicon published a simple website describing the vulnerability that may have left the encryption keys to some of the world’s most popular services, like Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Dropbox, flapping in the wind. Your passwords and other sensitive information were exposed for a very long time. Within just a few days, the big sites patched up their holes, and unless you’re a fool, you’ve taken the reasonable precautions to insulate yourself from the danger by changing your own passwords.
But getting people to freak out about a security issue isn’t always easy. The fact that word about Heartbleed spread so quickly — and that it was so quickly addressed — is actually partially a testament to how the bug was packaged by Codenomicon. Just look at Heartbleed.com, a perfect single serving site. The design is minimal and easy to read, and the simple logomark perfectly conveys the gravity of the problem. Even the name Heartbleed rings like a term that’s existed for decades, even though it first popped up less than a week ago. That the name is actually conceptually relevant to the bug, a flaw in an extension called “Heartbeat”, only makes it better.
Security bugs like Heartbleed pose a huge problem to the nerds who discover them. In many cases, the danger may be clear and present, but it’s not always easy to communicate the technical problems to the average person. If headlines everywhere this week had read, “OpenSSL Vulnerability Exposed, Encryption Keys Possibly Compromised,” there’s a chance that some readers would have quickly moved on to the next story, which very possibly contains a video of a cat climbing into a box.
Rather than disguise the danger in a cloak of technical jargon, the team that discovered and exposed Heartbleed opted for a simple approach worthy of a topflight advertising agency. As one of the researchers told TechCrunch, “experiencing the pain of the bug first hand we got a nagging feeling that this calls for a ‘Bugs 2.0′ approach in getting the message out in an emergency.”
Silly as “Bugs 2.0” sounds, it’s a wonderful idea: Communicating security flaws should be done in the languages people actually use. If your Twitter is crowded with content aiming to go viral, why shouldn’t a dangerous computer flaw be communicated the same way? Imagine if scientists took this approach — if, in addition to publishing their impenetrable papers, they produced accompanying media that communicated the relevance of their findings in terms people could actually understand. The internet, the most notoriously fickle audience, might actually pay attention.