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Apple TV gets its first critical security patch

Flaw made it possible to remotely access home networks

Security for virtualized datacentres

Apple has patched a security hole in its Apple TV box that made it possible for remote hackers to access a user's network and spy on traffic passing through it.

The flaw, which was patched in an update Apple released today, is the same vulnerability that plagued OS X until Apple released an update late last month.

It resides in a technology dubbed UPnP IGD (Internet Gateway Device Standardized Device Control Protocol), which is used to map ports on home networks. Problem is, a miscreant can bring about a buffer overflow by sending a maliciously crafted packet, making it possible to execute arbitrary code.

We were at first inclined to believe that being able to execute code on a device as limited as the Apple TV was little more than a oddity. But Dave Aitel, CTO of security research firm Immunity, says the machine's connection to home networks makes the flaw serious.

"If we get control of the Apple TV machine then anything that passes next to the Apple TV machine I can see," he explains. "Certainly, there's a lot of bad things you can do with access to their local network."

The ability to root around inside the Apple TV could also have serious implications down the road if, as many predict the device becomes a platform for buying or renting video.

Apple TVs are programmed to download and install any available patches once per week. That means the machines should automatically update within the next seven days. Those, like us, who prefer to receive critical patches a bit more quickly can manually install the fix by choosing Update Software from Apple TV's preference menu.

If the past six months are any indication, 2007 may go down as the year Apple's security team was exposed as mere mortals, rather than the demigods portrayed by Apple's marketing monkeys. Last week, the company introduced a bug-riddled test version of the Safari browser for Windows. In additional to numerous crashes, the beta contained at least three holes that made it possible for machines to get owned when Safari visited booby-trapped websites. To its credit, Apple patched the flaws just three days later. The company has plugged serious holes in other major products this year, including OS X and QuickTime.

While it's true the Apple TV flaw fixed today represented a serious potential privacy and security breach, it also opened up the possibility for more benign mischief.

By exploiting the flaw, "I can watch TV for them or I can display One Night in Paris instead," Aitel postulates, referring to the steamy Paris Hilton video. ®

This story was updated to correct the title of Dave Aitel.

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