Cybersecurity

Researchers question the security of sat-com, USB tech

Shutterstock image: satellite dishes.

Cybersecurity researchers are set to unveil separate reports Aug. 7 that they say show vulnerabilities in satellite communications gear used in government and critical infrastructure networks, as well as a fundamental flaw in the USB technology that almost all computers use.

One of the two papers, which will be presented at the annual Black Hat conference in Las Vegas, shows vulnerabilities in aircraft Wi-Fi networks and satellite communications systems can be used not only to take over commercial aircrafts' avionics, but also to make government, military and critical water treatment, electrical grid and oil pipeline satellite communications systems vulnerable to infiltration.

The study's author, Ruben Santamarta, principal security consultant at Seattle, Wash.-based IOActive, said his research covered the most widely deployed Inmarsat and Iridium SATCOM terminals. He said all of the devices he studied, including gear from Cobham Plc, Harris Corp., EchoStar Corp.'s Hughes Network Systems, Iridium Communications Inc., and Japan Radio Co., were vulnerable to attack through back doors, hard-coded credentials, undocumented or insecure protocols, and weak encryption algorithms.

In news reports in the run-up to the conference, Santamarta conceded the research was done primarily in a laboratory setting and not in the field. In a Reuters report on the study, device manufacturers said the flaws would be almost impossible to exploit outside the lab.

Nevertheless, Santamarta said, the research was "a wake-up call both to vendors and users of the current generation of SATCOM technology."

He said the company has been working with the CERT Coordination Center to alert the affected companies about the issues he had uncovered. The center is part of the Software Engineering Institute, a federally funded research and development center at Carnegie Mellon University's main campus in Pittsburgh.

The second paper reinforces the widely held aversion that federal IT practitioners feel for unsecured USB devices.

The report, from security cryptographer and security researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell at Berlin-based SRSLabs, goes beyond the questionable security of the information stored on USB devices and delves into the devices' underlying firmware.

"USB devices are connected to – and in many cases even built into – virtually all computers," they said. That ubiquity can be exploited to turn devices that have USB controller chips "evil."

Using the USB controller chip, the researchers said, peripheral devices can be reprogrammed to spoof network cards, change computer DNS settings to redirect traffic, or implement keyboard emulation and other malicious actions.

Defenses are not effective because malware scanners can't access the firmware running on USB devices, the authors contend. USB firewalls against such an attack do not yet exist, and behavioral detection is difficult because a corrupted device’s behavior when it changes its persona looks as though a user has simply plugged in a new device, they wrote.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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