Folks, for what it's worth, here is a management briefing I wrote this morning. Please feel free to re-use, but please do give proper attribution. Please do comment and correct as appropriate.
Summary: Briefing for management on activities to minimize impacts of the "shellshock" computer vulnerability.
Status: Testing underway. Our initial scans and appraisals are that our public-facing systems are likely not subject to shellshock. NOTE: The situation is fluid, due to the nature of the vulnerability. Personnel are also reaching out to hosting providers to assess the status of intervening systems.
What is it? A vulnerability in a command interpreter found on the vast majority of Linux and UNIX systems, including web servers, development machines, routers, firewalls, etc. The vulnerability could allow an anonymous attacker to execute arbitrary commands remotely, and to obtain the results of these commands via their browser. The security community has nicknamed the vulnerability "shellshock" since it affects computer command interpreters known as shells.
How does it work? Command interpreters, or "shells", are the computer components that allow users to type and execute computer commands. Anytime a user works in a terminal window, they are using a command interpreter - think of the DOS command prompt. Some GUI applications, especially administrative applications, are in fact just graphical interfaces to command interpreters. The most common command interpreter on Linux and UNIX is known as the "bash shell". Within the last several days, security researchers discovered that a serious vulnerability has been present in the vast majority of instances of bash for the last twenty years. This vulnerability allows an attacker with access to a bash shell to execute arbitrary commands. Because many web servers use system command interpreters to fulfill user requests, attackers need not have physical access to a system: The ability to issue web requests, using their browser or commonly-available command line tools, may be enough.
How bad could it be? Very, very bad. The vulnerability may exist on the vast majority of Linux and UNIX systems shipped over the last 20 years, including web servers, development machines, routers, firewalls, other network appliances, printers, Mac OSX computers, Android phones, and possibly iPhones (note: It has yet to be established that smartphones are affected, but given that Android and iOS are variants of Linus and UNIX, respectively, it would be premature to exclude them). Furthermore, many such systems have web-based administrative interfaces: While many of these machines do not provide a "web server" in the sense of a server providing content of interest to the casual or "normal" user, many do provide web-based interfaces for diagnotics and administration. Any such system that provides dynamic content using system utilities may be vulnerable.
What is the primary risk? There are two, data loss and system modification. By allowing an attacker to execute arbitrary commands, the shellshock vulnerability may allow the attacker to both obtain data from a system and to make changes to system configuration. There is also a third risk, that of using affected systems to launch attacks against other systems, so-called "reflector" attacks: The arbitrary command specified by the attacker could be to direct a network utility against a third machine.
How easy is it to detect the vulnerability? Surprising easily: A single command executed using ubiquitous system tools will reveal whether any particular web device or web server is vulnerable.
What are we doing? Technical personnel are using these commands to test all web servers and other devices we manage and are working with hosting providers to ensure that all devices upon which we depend have been tested. When devices are determined to be vulnerable, a determination is made whether they should be left alone (e.g., if they are not public facing and patches are either not yet available or would be disruptive at this time, or if there are other mitigations or safeguards in place), patched (e.g., if patches are available and are low impact), or turned off (e.g., if patches are not available, risk is high, and the service is not mandate critical).
Updates to this briefing will provided as the situation develops.