Bleeding Love: Heartbleed & The Perils of Well-Intentioned Volunteerism

InternetUsersWorldMapAccording to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), nearly 40% of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants are Internet users. (This map, right, depicts Internet users per country).  While our shared, digital connection allows for incredible international cooperation and collaboration, it’s also true that moving our lives and business online exposes us to new risks inherent in faceless interaction.

Last week’s “Heartbleed” bug will go down in history as a particularly memorable security vulnerability, one that has been called a “worst nightmare” scenario, affecting nearly 3 billion global citizens who access the Internet.

If you’re still confused about what Heartbleed is, or lost in the technical jargon of most explanations, check out this excellent FAQ from CNET. The bottom line? A single line of weak code in a widely-used open-source software puts all of us at risk of leaked passwords for our online mail, commerce and communications. If you’re wondering whether a specific site is affected or if you should change a password, check here on LastPass, or consult this comprehensive list from Mashable.


Beyond the fact that Heartbleed is a practical matter of protecting our online identities and personal security, we also find the story fascinating and relevant to Everyday Ambassador in a few other ways as well.

(1) In general, it’s a powerful reminder that the tech tools we often consider infallible have serious weaknesses. The more we can stay aware of our potential over-reliance on technology, the more we can manage it responsibly, and keep ourselves protected and healthy, online and offline. As Ariana Huffington summarized on her Sunday Roundup yesterday,

“the Heartbleed computer bug reminded us how vulnerable we are to technology. As we take the time to strengthen our computer security by resetting passwords, we should also take the opportunity to fortify our inner strength and well-being by reminding ourselves to regularly ‘consciously uncouple’ from our ever-present devices.”

(2) We can’t help but be reminded about the importance of long-term commitment to projects even if we are volunteers, and the potential dangers we all pose as volunteer contributors, even if our intentions are positive and we aspire to serve others. While EA normally discusses this theme in the lens of international aid and development, journalist Rusty Foster at The New Yorker highlights that volunteers have crafted and maintained enormously popular (yet as we’ve learned, vulnerable) OpenSSL encryption software, upon which so many of our digitals interactions are constructed:

“Unlike a rusting highway bridge, digital infrastructure does not betray the effects of age. And, unlike roads and bridges, large portions of the software infrastructure of the Internet are built and maintained by volunteers, who get little reward when their code works well but are blamed, and sometimes savagely derided, when it fails….[It’s easy to] forget that the Internet we use every day depends in part on the freely donated work of thousands of programmers.”

Now, we have no intention to bemoan these volunteers, to whom we are all indebted for services we take for granted every single day. Even considering the incredible damage Heartbleed could have (or could still) cause to Internet users, there is perhaps an even more immense amount of positive progress that has been enabled thanks to the work of these volunteer programmers. (Also, logistically speaking, it is likely necessary to rely on volunteers in order to maintain the non-politically/corporately-governed realm of the Internet) But at the same time, we take this opportunity to praise the many volunteers who have written for EA, who critically assess their past experiences, determine what types of behaviors were destructive, and describe how to change those behaviors, to educate others about these pitfalls and avoid future disasters.

(3) Lastly, for those of us who are not programmers, the Heartbleed bug poses the question of whether or not we realize how much of our lives and security we willingly (or blindly) place into the hands of volunteers. Do we even realize what we are giving up for the sake of convenience and comfort? Further, think about how vulnerable this situation has made you and your loved ones, and consider that you may be causing other people to feel this vulnerable when you are in the role of (less than professional) volunteer, aspiring to help others but perhaps causing harm. Consider that the answer to both dilemmas points in the direction of self-sufficiency, of ‘teaching to fish, not giving fish’ to people ‘in need’. Ask yourself, whether you’re in the position of giver or receiver, is this a sustainable relationship, or one based on dependency? (This may be a good time to consider learning how to code, for free, on CodeAcademy!)

It is inevitable that as we continue to coordinate (and even live) our lives through online platforms, we will increasingly rely on one another to share skills and provide services. Ideally we can do this, both technically and philosophically, in ways that create strong, sustainable systems and avoid blind (even if temporarily blissful) dependencies.

“Field Notes” is weekly global news commentary by Everyday Ambassador founder and director Kate Otto. To stay up to date on current events and the latest posts from this series, follow #fieldnotes on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.

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