Army silences computers

The Army plans to modify its PC and laptop contracts to include a special

security device that automatically disables integrated microphones that

hackers could use to listen to classified or sensitive conversations.

The Army's Small Computer Program, which oversees more than three dozen

contracts for PCs, laptops and software, recommends that users working in

classified programs purchase a new National Security Agency-approved security

device with all PC and laptop buys.

The device, known as an Erase Plug or Short Erase Plug, plugs into laptops

and PCs and disables the system's microphone without causing any irreparable

damage to the circuitry. The device also is available for about $3 from

most major electronics stores.

The Army last month issued a memorandum instructing all users to take

whatever measures necessary to eliminate the security risks posed by multimedia

desktop computers and laptops that are connected to Army networks.

Phillip Loranger, chief of the Command and Control Protect Division

at the Army's Information Assurance Office, recently demonstrated how hackers

are able to hack into systems and intercept conversations and live video

via microphones and video cameras.

Loranger said the tools have been widely available for almost 10 years

and enable hackers to listen in on conversations at up to 10 megabits/sec

and view compressed images from video cameras.

Yvonne Jackson, program manager for the Army Small Computer Program,

said users can use the device to disable the microphone without having to

tinker with the system's internal circuitry. Most warranties strictly forbid

opening computer systems and performing self-maintenance and repairs.

"It's an inexpensive device that won't damage the system," said Jackson,

saying that it should be added to all SCP contracts within the next few

weeks.

Although the existing policy "encourages" all users who work in classified

or sensitive areas to buy the device, Loranger, speaking recently at the

Army's annual Directors of Information Management Conference, hinted at

making the device mandatory. When the Army demonstrated to NSA in January

the hacker threat posed by microphones, "it upset them so badly" that all

contracts may soon be modified, he said.

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