Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 2.16.49 PMIn 2013 I did a presentation on social media threats at the OOP (Object Oriented Programming) conference in Munich. (You can see my presentation here.)

Well, the folks that ran the conference were nice enough to invite me back for this year’s event where I did a talk entitled “The Data Center in Your Pocket: Securing Mobile Devices.”

There’s logo_biggerno video this time around but I did do an interview for InfoQ.com on the general topic of mobile security, which you can find here, in case you’re interested.

You are driving down the road minding your own business on a brisk winter day when suddenly the stereo starts blaring unrecognizable music, the air conditioner begins blasting cold air, the onboard navigation system changes course, the headlights start flashing, the engine turns off, killing the power steering and braking systems making a controlled stop difficult, if not impossible. Oh, and the same thing just happened to every other car on the road around you at the very same time.

Got your attention?

That scenario, though implausible today, is not impossible in the not too distant future. The Internet of Things (IoT) movement to turn everything we use into computers has already taken hold in the automotive industry. Cool new features that let you remotely lock and unlock and start your car are becoming more common. That’s great news for both the good folks who enjoy this infusion of technology into more and more parts of their lives and it’s great news for the bad guys who would like to exploit the darker sider of these advancements.

The point is that if you can control all these systems on your car wirelessly, the potential exists for a hacker to do the same.

While the doomsday scenario outlined previously is still a bit far fetched, it may not be as unlikely as you might think as we are already starting to see proof of concept attacks and other vulnerabilities emerge. Here are a few examples:

  • Reuters reported that BMW recently patched a bug that left over 2 million Rolls-Royce, Mini and BMW cars open to having their doors unlocked by attackers. According to the article, the vulnerable software allowed drivers to:

    activate door locking mechanisms, as well as a range of other services including real-time traffic information, online entertainment and air conditioning.

    Apparently the communications between the car and the controller weren’t encrypted so an attacker could trick the car into listening to unauthorized commands. The problem is supposed to be fixed now but one has to wonder why it just now occurred to the powers that be that authenticating the source of the commands might be an important feature.

  • The Register reported that:

    Zhejiang University students have hacked the Tesla Model S with an attack that enabled them to open its doors and sun roof, switch on the headlights and sound the horn – all while the car was driving along.”

  • And there’s this from ARS Technica:

    papers published in 2010 and 2011, on-board components such as CD players, Bluetooth for hands-free calls, and “telematics” units for OnStar and similar road-side services make it possible for an attacker to remotely execute malicious code.
    The research is still in its infancy, but its implications are unsettling. Trick a driver into loading the wrong CD or connecting the Bluetooth to the wrong handset, and it’s theoretically possible to install malicious code on one of the ECUs. Since the ECUs communicate with one another using little or no authentication, there’s no telling how far the hack could extend.”

  • And if you’d like to see a proof of concept take a look at this video which shows a car’s horn, steering and brakes being controlled by a backseat driver.

Before you throw away your keys and go horse shopping bear in mind that most cars on the road lack these sort of remote control capabilities in the first place but that is changing. The hope here is that the auto makers will learn from these early mistakes and make safer vehicles in the future. The likelihood is that we will hear about a lot more of these types of vulnerabilities before they do.

Now, who wants a self driving car?

You’ve just checked into your hotel and gotten situated in your room. All that time on the plane has left you feeling a bit out of touch so you head down to the business center to do a quick check of your email. You’re in luck — there’s a free workstation just waiting there for you. You log in to your account, read a few, respond to some, delete some spam, log off and head for the gym feeling that everything is now in order. But is it?

Turns out that the person using that same PC a few hours ago opened an attachment that contained malware that installed itself on the system and has been recording every keystroke entered ever since. Making matters worse, all those email responses, web site addresses, credit card numbers and logins have also been surreptitiously forwarded to someone on the other side the world who now has everything they need to take over your email, raid your bank account and run up charges on your credit card.

Krebs on Security has a good post on this threat along with a discussion of  some preventative measures your hotel could have taken to protect you. The problem is, as the author points out, all of them can potentially be circumvented.

Of course, you could enable all your accounts to use 2-factor (a.k.a. two step) authentication where a seemingly random set of numbers are texted to your phone that you then have to enter after entering your account name and password (and you should!), but most people don’t want to be bothered with this extra step and they are precisely the ones that the bad guys are counting on.

The bottom line is, if you don’t control the system you’re using (and you never do with a public terminal), you really have no idea who else might be listening in so you should consider that anything you type (including your password) is now public information.

The best thing you can do to avoid this scenario is simply to not use public workstations. It may be a pain to lug along your own laptop but it beats the alternative.

Just when you think you’ve got all the windows closed and doors locked on your IT security, a new and unexpected hole is revealed to get you started on that next ulcer — or at least that’s how it seems at times. Here are a couple of interesting hacks that take advantages of weaknesses you may have never thought of but hackers have …

WireLurker: Most iPhone and iPad users never get a second thought to malware on their devices. After all, Apple scrubs all the apps that go into their app store, right? And, if you’ve been good and haven’t jailbroken your device, that “walled garden” of security should protect you since there’s no way to instal apps, malicious or otherwise, from other sources, right? Not exactly. What if you download an infected program to your Mac that then passes malware to your iPhone when you connect it via USB? Meet WireLurker. Here’s a description from MacRumors.com:

Once installed, WireLurker can collect information from iOS devices like contacts and iMessages, and it’s able to request updates from attackers. It’s said to be under “active development” with an unclear “ultimate goal.”

Didn’t see that one coming? Try this one on for size…

Gyrophone: I’ve posted here before about the possibility of malware surreptitiously turning on the microphone (or camera, yikes!) on a mobile phone turning your trusty sidekick into an always on surveillance device. One of the protections against this sort of attack is that apps, even bad ones, typically need to ask for your permission in order to access the mic (or camera). Of course, if the malware is disguised as a benign program you might be willing to grant access but it turns out that you may not have to. Researchers at Stanford found that the gyroscopes in modern phones that help them know how the device is oriented in your hand. so that the screen can rotate accordingly, are so sensitive that they can pick up the vibrations of ambient sound. In other words, you talk, your phone vibrates, the built-in gyro registers the movement (ever so slight as it may be) and then a program could pick up on this and transmit what you are saying without your knowledge. But wouldn’t you have to grant access to the gyroscope to the malicious program? No, because designers apparently never anticipated this sort of use (abuse?) of that feature. Read more about it and watch a video here.

Hacked Hotel: I’ll leave you with one more bit of grist for the mill from an article in the South China Morning Post:

A San Francisco-based cybersecurity expert claims he has hacked and taken control of hundreds of highly automated rooms at a five-star Shenzhen hotel.

Jesus Molina was staying at the St Regis Shenzhen, which provides guests with an iPad and digital “butler” app to control features of the room including the thermostat, lights, and television.

Realising how vulnerable the system was, Molina wrote a piece of code spoofing the guest iPad so he could control the room from his laptop.

After some investigation, and three room changes, he discovered that the network addresses of each room and the devices within them were sequential, allowing him to write a script to potentially control every one of the hotel’s more than 250 rooms.

“Hotels are particularly bad when it comes to security,” Molina said. “[They’re] using all this new technology, which I think is great, but the problem is that the security architecture and security problems are way different than for residential buildings”.

This sort of Internet of Things technology is great. Unfortunately, so are the opportunities for abuse. Clearly, we in the IT Security industry have some work to do. In the meantime, break out the tin foil hats… :-)

For some, the mere fact that newer mobile phone models exist is reason enough to desire them. For others, the tried and true, trusty sidekick that has served them well (not to mention, that it took it 2 years to figure out how to use the thing) is more than adequate.

I confess to belonging to the first group because I love new technology. I also lean that direction because of my security roots.

As I mentioned in my previous post, old phones run old software and old software has old security bugs that haven’t been fixed.

In keeping with that theme, Graham Cluely recently wrote a thought provoking post entitled “If You Care About Security, Throw Away Your iPhone 4 Right Now.” OK, it’s a bit alarmist, but the underlying point is valid.

This isn’t picking on Apple because Android has the same issue. The point is that while newer doesn’t always mean better, when it comes to security you need to remember that …

Goldilocksold phone = unsupported = security bugs that won’t ever get fixed

Of course, the flip side of this is that …

new phone = not fully tested = new security bugs (that will, hopefully, one day get fixed)

Oh, and, by the way, the same holds true for operating systems, apps, etc.

So, what are you supposed to do? Balance is the key. Too old or too new is always going to be riskier than “just right.” I think Goldilocks said that in the sequel …

Unlike fine wine or cheese, old software doesn’t get better with age, it just starts to smell bad. Certainly it can “mature” as upgrades and patches are applied but if you simply “install it and forget it” then you could be setting yourself up for a world of trouble.

Recently Microsoft withdrew support for an old standby, Windows XP, and, as a result, pushed many to upgrade or face the risk of exposure to an increasing list of unpatched security vulnerabilities. Many grumbled about having to make the change but it was not unexpected. It costs vendors lots of money to support any operating system so it behooves them to support the fewest number they can or risk draining precious resources that could be spent developing newer versions with even better features demanded by the marketplace.

Windows XP is old in OS terms — nearly 13 years old, in fact. So, the end of the ride was inevitable, even if not fully appreciated by everyone.

But what about, say, Windows 95? It would be hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a user still running that moldy oldie if their system got hacked. After all, that was essentially 8 generations ago as a desktop OS. There are tons of security bugs that have been discovered in it since its introduction and, while most of been fixed, there are plenty that never will be since it was withdrawn from support a long time ago. Therefore, anyone still running Win95 isn’t likely to get a lot of sympathy given the known risks of doing so, right?

What about someone doing essentially the same thing on their mobile phone? Smart phones have very complex operating systems and we are finding more and more security holes in them every day. What would you say to someone still running the Win95 equivalent of Android? Good luck!

Well, it turns out that about 20% of Android devices world wide are essentially doing just that. That’s roughly what Android 2.x matches up to if you compare its generations to those of Windows. How many bugs do you think are sitting around on those aging handsets just waiting to be exploited? A lot more than their owners are aware of, I suspect.

To be fair, mobile OS generations have been rolling out faster than desktop OSs lately so the time lines won’t match up perfectly, but the truth is that there are a scary number of mobile devices that are wide open to attack because they are running old software.

Why not simply update the OS on these devices? Because, in many cases you can’t. Unlike the PC world where a single vendor (i.e. Microsoft) can push out a new OS when they like and users can update whenever they choose (for the most part), the Android world involves a sometimes unholy trinity of handset makers, Google (who makes the Android OS) and the carriers. If you want to update your phone you have to get the sun, moon and stars to align so that all three parties allow it and that has proven much harder and slower than most people would like. Since change is happening so rapidly in the mobile space, it is hard for old handsets to keep up with the demands of new OS versions plus handset makers have a stronger incentive to get you to upgrade than they do to keep you on an old device.

What all this adds up to is a lot of handsets with OS levels that have long since passed from stale to downright rotten and since hackers are drawn to vulnerable systems like ants to a picnic, it would not at all be unreasonable to expect a buggy mess as a result.

The Apple/iOS ecosystem is a little less complicated because you have only a two-headed monster (Apple and the carrier) to deal with. This results is fewer options for users but considerably less software rot.

More freedom/choice or more security? I actually use both but hope that whichever one you choose, you at least do so with your eyes wide open…

Toilet-My SATISSo, you thought IoT stood for “Internet of Things,” right? A reference to the instrumentation of all sorts of previously stand alone devices like refrigerators, washers, dryers, thermostats, implantable medical devices, cars, etc., in such a way as to make them accessible from via the Internet. Cool stuff … when it works. When it doesn’t? Not so much …

How about a high tech toilet that lets you use your Bluetooth enabled phone to as a remote control to:

  • raise and lower the seat
  • flush
  • turn on the bidet feature (for the uninitiated, this means a stream of water is sprayed at your private parts)
  • and who knows what else?

I guess it could be interesting if you really get bored in the bathroom but, even as someone who loves technology, I’m just not sure that this sort of confluence of water, electricity and sensitive body parts should be brought that close together, if you know what I mean.

What if said toilet had a security flaw that allowed essentially anyone within Bluetooth range (which is supposed to be about 10 meters but can be extended substantially if you know what you’re doing) to control all these functions remotely without your permission?

And what if robo-potty also kept records of all your, let’s say, “activity” for reasons I’m not sure I even want to know?

Well, that’s the case with the My SATIS “luxury” toilet, where it turns out that the Bluetooth code for all the devices is hardcoded as “0000” and can’t be changed, according to a report from the BBC. That means that anyone with an Android phone can download the app, connect to your porcelain convenience and have a grand ole time at your expense.

Take it all one step further and make it part of a “connected home” ecosystem, which, thankfully, hasn’t been done yet and you could imagine the range for these attacks going global.

Brave new world? I certainly hope not …