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Embedded devices a cinch to pwn

The weak link in the chain

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CanSecWest Cell phones, modems, routers and similar devices are a lot easier to hack than most people think, making them an opportune target for criminals looking for an easy way to pierce a network, a researcher from Juniper networks says.

Speaking at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver, Barnaby Jack demonstrated how a soldering kit and some basic knowledge about the processors typically used in embedded devices can allow miscreants to download the firmware running on the hardware. The code can then be modified to make the devices do all kinds of nefarious things, he warns.

Over the past decade, computers - usually those running Windows - have emerged as the vector of choice for cyber crooks. That is beginning to change for several reasons. For one, years of trial and error (with an emphasis on error) has helped Microsoft harden the defenses of its software, making it harder to find critical vulnerabilities. At the same time, the number of cell phones, routers and other embedded devices has proliferated.

Hardware designers often make it easy for their devices to be hacked because they contain debugging functionality and hardware interfaces not needed by end users.

Jack demonstrated how modified firmware for a router made by D-Link changed default settings so remote administration was enabled. (He emphasized gear made by other vendors was equally at risk.) That in turn would allow the router to be accessed remotely, potentially allowing the altering of DNS settings or the disclosure of VPN credentials.

We would have been more impressed had it been possible to modify the firmware remotely. Alas, that was not the case. To alter the settings, the criminal would need to access the device on the local area network. Jack claims similar attacks could be carried out over the net.

We'll give Jack the benefit of the doubt here, not just because we're in a charitable mood, but also because he makes a good point. Embedded devices are everywhere and we suspect little thought or money is put into fortifying them against the increasing sophistication of today's cyber attacks. Consider yourselves warned. ®

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