Archive for the ‘Tech-Hardware’ Category

Why the Security of USB Is Fundamentally Broken

Monday, August 11th, 2014

– If you liked what I posted yesterday, you’l love today.

– dennis

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Computer users pass around USB sticks like silicon business cards. Although we know they often carry malware infections, we depend on antivirus scans and the occasional reformatting to keep our thumbdrives from becoming the carrier for the next digital epidemic. But the security problems with USB devices run deeper than you think: Their risk isn’t just in what they carry, it’s built into the core of how they work.

That’s the takeaway from findings security researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell plan to present next week, demonstrating a collection of proof-of-concept malicious software that highlights how the security of USB devices has long been fundamentally broken. The malware they created, called BadUSB, can be installed on a USB device to completely take over a PC, invisibly alter files installed from the memory stick, or even redirect the user’s internet traffic. Because BadUSB resides not in the flash memory storage of USB devices, but in the firmware that controls their basic functions, the attack code can remain hidden long after the contents of the device’s memory would appear to the average user to be deleted. And the two researchers say there’s no easy fix: The kind of compromise they’re demonstrating is nearly impossible to counter without banning the sharing of USB devices or filling your port with superglue.

“These problems can’t be patched,” says Nohl, who will join Lell in presenting the research at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas. “We’re exploiting the very way that USB is designed.”


Nohl and Lell, researchers for the security consultancy SR Labs, are hardly the first to point out that USB devices can store and spread malware. But the two hackers didn’t merely copy their own custom-coded infections into USB devices’ memory. They spent months reverse engineering the firmware that runs the basic communication functions of USB devices—the controller chips that allow the devices to communicate with a PC and let users move files on and off of them. Their central finding is that USB firmware, which exists in varying forms in all USB devices, can be reprogrammed to hide attack code. “You can give it to your IT security people, they scan it, delete some files, and give it back to you telling you it’s ‘clean,’” says Nohl. But unless the IT guy has the reverse engineering skills to find and analyze that firmware, “the cleaning process doesn’t even touch the files we’re talking about.”

The problem isn’t limited to thumb drives. All manner of USB devices from keyboards and mice to smartphones have firmware that can be reprogrammed—in addition to USB memory sticks, Nohl and Lell say they’ve also tested their attack on an Android handset plugged into a PC. And once a BadUSB-infected device is connected to a computer, Nohl and Lell describe a grab bag of evil tricks it can play. It can, for example, replace software being installed with with a corrupted or backdoored version. It can even impersonate a USB keyboard to suddenly start typing commands. “It can do whatever you can do with a keyboard, which is basically everything a computer does,” says Nohl.

The malware can silently hijack internet traffic too, changing a computer’s DNS settings to siphon traffic to any servers it pleases. Or if the code is planted on a phone or another device with an internet connection, it can act as a man-in-the-middle, secretly spying on communications as it relays them from the victim’s machine.

Most of us learned long ago not to run executable files from sketchy USB sticks. But old-fashioned USB hygiene can’t stop this newer flavor of infection: Even if users are aware of the potential for attacks, ensuring that their USB’s firmware hasn’t been tampered with is nearly impossible. The devices don’t have a restriction known as “code-signing,” a countermeasure that would make sure any new code added to the device has the unforgeable cryptographic signature of its manufacturer. There’s not even any trusted USB firmware to compare the code against.

The element of Nohl and Lell’s research that elevates it above the average theoretical threat is the notion that the infection can travel both from computer to USB and vice versa. Any time a USB stick is plugged into a computer, its firmware could be reprogrammed by malware on that PC, with no easy way for the USB device’s owner to detect it. And likewise, any USB device could silently infect a user’s computer. “It goes both ways,” Nohl says. “Nobody can trust anybody.”

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Tiles, the NSA and your iPhone – it’s a changing world

Monday, September 16th, 2013

“The agency, according to the documents and interviews with industry officials, deployed custom-built, superfast computers to break codes, and began collaborating with technology companies in the United States and abroad to build entry points into their products. The documents do not identify which companies have participated.”  from ProPublica

– dennis

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As someone who thinks of himself as a futurist, I tend to keep my eyes peeled for patterns and connections which can, possibly, indicate something about our future.

There are two things going on now which I think are going to conjunct and increase the penetration into our personal lives of the nascent police states that most western democracies are steadily becoming.

The first thing

Is already visibly in motion.  That is the efforts of the American NSA to penetrate everyone and everything in the name of national security; as revealed by Edward Snowden’s documents.

It is now open knowledge that the NSA has broken most of the cryptology that we’ve depended on to keep our personal information safe from prying eyes.

This would include your computer passwords.


And any files you store in encrypted form.  And any files you send.  And any files you receive in encrypted form.

And, if they have access to your computer passwords, then they have full access to all your files and all your stored e-mail.

If they have all of that, then what do you have?

Bupkis – you don’t have much that’s yours, if they want it.

The criminal hackers of the world would be overjoyed to have that sort of access.   If they did, your computers would be full of malware, trojans and key loggers before you could blink.

I suppose we can just hope that the folks in the NSA that have access to this sort of power are using it exclusively for the public good.

The second thing

Has only just recently come into play.   These are the little devices called “Tilesthat you may have seen advertised.  They’ve been sold on-line now for a few months and the first deliveries are scheduled for winter 2013/2014.  I bought one recently for $18.95 USD out of curiosity.


Tiles help you find things.  They are about an inch square, made of white plastic, about 1/8 of an inch thick and they have a small hole on one corner so you can tie or attach them to things.  You can also stick them onto things with two-sided adhesive.

They have a non-replaceable battery in them that runs for about a year and they communicate back and forth via the Bluetooth short-range radio.   They come with an application program that runs on your iPhone and the program can help you find  one of your Tiles if you’ve lost it and whatever it is attached to like your keys, or your backpack or whatever.

If, for example, you’ve lost your keys, you fire up the Tile application program and ask it to locate the Tile attached to your keys.

If you are within about 50 to 150 feet or so of your keys (the range varies with terrain), the application program will show you on your iPhone where the Tile (and your keys) are … out in the garage.

Ah!  And then you remember that you laid them down on the work bench when your phone rang as you were getting the groceries out of your car.

One more thing about Tiles.  If you really lose something, like your motorcycle is missing through theft, and you were thoughtful enough to have had a Tile attached to it, you can contact the Tile people and they will put out an alert on that Tile.

Once a Tile has an alert on it, any iPhone in the world running the Tile application program that passes with 50 to 150 feet or so of your sought-after Tile, will silently send a message to the Tile people indicating that it ‘saw’ your Tile and provide the GPS location where it was.

The person carrying the iPhone running the Tile application program that located your Tile won’t even know any of this happened.

So, where ever folks are wandering around with the Tile application program on their iPhones, a quiet and constant search is being made all the time for lost Tiles (and whatever’s attached to them).

So, how does this link to the NSA and future developments?

Well, it goes like this.

The first thing to realize is that the NSA folks are certainly smarter than the average bear.  They could, and probably already have, made something very much like the Tile.  Something that’s a lot smaller, harder to detect, has better range, longer battery life and etc.  Let’s call these special NSA versions NSATiles.

The second thing to recognize is that the NSA already has the technology to break and enter into virtually any computer they want to; including our iPhones.

So, if they wish to, they can populate most of the world’s iPhones with a sweet little bit of hidden software that none of us would know about that does just what the Tile application program does; except for NSA’s purposes.

Mmm. Perhaps, I’m not thinking this through clearly?

Why should they need to insert new clandestine software into our iPhones from the outside?

The recent news from Edward Snowden has also revealed that the NSA has, under national security laws, forced some of the major software companies in the US to install ‘backdoors‘ into their software so the NSA can go in and look at what it wants to even while users of that software think their privacy is secure.   Moreover, the NSA has enjoined these companies to say nothing of this; again under the threat of national security laws.

So, why couldn’t the NSA have pressured Apple to add NSATile detection and reporting software?  They’ve done a lot of this sort of thing already.  And, Apple couldn’t warn us without breaking the law.

In short, there’s no reason why the NSA cannot use our millions iPhone devices to clandestinely scan the world for NSATiles that the NSA is interested in tracking.

And, when your iPhone sees such an NSATile, it will silently “phone home”  to the NSA and report it along with its GPS coordinates.  Nice, eh?

So, we will be an entire world of folks wandering around with iPhones doing the NSA’s bidding and looking for anyone or anything that the NSA wants to track geographically.  Terrorists, demonstrators, spies, packages, books, animals, us … you name it.

And all of us doing NSA’s bidding unknowingly.

Will this happen?

The real question, I think, given that capabilities described already exist, is why wouldn’t it be happening now?   After all, knowledge is power and this is government we’re talking here.

In a related development

There’s a parallel development involving very similar technology, see this article which I just encountered today by coincidence.

It is about something called iBeacon which is part of Apple’s newly released iOS 7 software.

This new iBeacon technology will be coming to a shopping center near you soon and it’s going to be talking to your iPhone as you walk by the stores.  It’s going to be trying to sell  you things.

Cameras May Open Up the Board Room to Hackers

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

One afternoon this month, a hacker took a tour of a dozen conference rooms around the globe via equipment that most every company has in those rooms; videoconferencing equipment.

With the move of a mouse, he steered a camera around each room, occasionally zooming in with such precision that he could discern grooves in the wood and paint flecks on the wall. In one room, he zoomed out through a window, across a parking lot and into shrubbery some 50 yards away where a small animal could be seen burrowing underneath a bush. With such equipment, the hacker could have easily eavesdropped on privileged attorney-client conversations or read trade secrets on a report lying on the conference room table.

In this case, the hacker was HD Moore, a chief security officer at Rapid7, a Boston based company that looks for security holes in computer systems that are used in devices like toaster ovens and Mars landing equipment. His latest find: videoconferencing equipment is often left vulnerable to hackers.

Businesses collectively spend billions of dollars each year beefing up security on their computer systems and employee laptops. They agonize over the confidential information that employees send to their Gmail and Dropbox accounts and store on their iPads and smartphones. But rarely do they give much thought to the ease with which anyone can penetrate a videoconference room where their most guarded trade secrets are openly discussed.

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– Research thanks to Gerry B.

Setting up a LinkSys WRT54G as a router

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

I’m replacing an AirPort Base Station Access Point in my home WiFi network with a LinkSys WRT54G v2.2 Broadband Router. As is usual, it wasn’t a simple or easy process. Details which may prove helpful to someone else are here: