Malware hitches a ride on digital devices
In the frame
It's time to add digital picture frames to the group of consumer products that could carry computer viruses and Trojan horse programs.
In the past month, at least three consumers have reported that photo frames - small flat-panel displays for displaying digital images - received over the holidays attempted to install malicious code on their computer systems, according to the Internet Storm Center, a network-threat monitoring group. Each case involved the same product and the same chain of stores, suggesting that the electronic systems were infected at the factory or somewhere during shipping, said Marcus Sachs, who volunteers as the director of the Internet Storm Center.
"When (the first incident) pops up, we thought it might be someone that was infected and blamed it on the digital picture frame," Sachs said. "But this is malware - and malware that does not seem to be very well detected. You could plug in a device and infect yourself with something that you would never know you had."
The incidents underscore that the proliferation of electronic devices with onboard memory means that consumers have to increasingly be aware of the danger of unwanted code hitching a ride. While many consumers are already wary of certain devices, such as digital music players, USB memory sticks and external hard drives, that include onboard memory, other types of electronics have largely escaped scrutiny.
In the past, consumer devices infected with malicious code have generally been the result of manufacturing mishaps. In October 2007, for example, hard-disk drive maker Seagate acknowledged that a password-stealing Trojan horse program had infected a number of its disk drives shipped from a factory in China after a computer at the manufacturing facility was infected. The Trojan horse would infect systems and attempt to steal the account credentials to Chinese online games as well as the popular World of Warcraft.
In another incident, a Windows computer virus snuck onto the hard drives of a limited number of Apple's iPods during manufacturing in 2006.
Going forward, infections may no longer always be accidental, said Sachs, who is also the executive director of government affairs at telecommunications provider Verizon.
"I think that supply-side attacks are going to go from zero to some small percentage," he said. "It is obviously not going to be as dangerous as mass mailing email infections, but you could have some really clever targeted attacks."
In the latest incidents, three photo frames made by Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based Advanced Design Systems, and bought from different Sam's Club stores, each contained a Trojan horse, according to reports to the SANS Internet Storm Center. The malicious code appears to act like a rootkit, hiding itself and disabling access to antivirus resources.
"It propagates to any connected device by copying a script, a com file and an autorun file," one consumer reported to the ISC. "It hides all systems files and itself while completely eliminating the user admin ability to show hidden files. It creates processes that negate any attempt to go to anti virus and anti spam web sites. It prevents the remote installation of any antivirus components."
Advanced Design Systems did not immediately respond to requests for comment sent by email and left on its voicemail system on Tuesday. A media representative of Wal-Mart, which owns the Sam's Club discount warehouse chain, could not comment on the issue when contacted Monday and did not provide a comment in time for publication.
Keeping malicious code off of consumer products is a serious issue, said Larry Landry, a software expert and digital-picture frame expert at Eastman Kodak. Landry was frank about the chances of any manufacturer eliminating the risk of accidental infection: A company cannot rule out an infection in the factory, but it can make the probability of such an incident very unlikely, he said.
"Kodak works very closely with our suppliers to see that they have the latest version of antivirus software on the manufacturing systems," Landry said. "We also ask that any PCs in the factory are not connected to the Internet."
Kodak is not among the manufacturers whose products were allegedly compromised by the Trojan horse program.
Following the report of an infected digital photo frame on Christmas Day, the Internet Storm Center called for more information and turned a single incident into a steady drip, if not a flood, of anecdotes from consumers. Other devices that reportedly came with a viral hitchhikers included hard drives, MP3 players and music-playing sunglasses.
While a compromise at the manufacturer is the most likely scenario, ISC's Sachs also pointed to retailers as a possible point of infection. Returned products, which could have been infected by the consumer, are frequently put back on the shelf, if they are in sale-able condition, and attackers could take advantage of a store's poor digital hygiene, he said.
"Trying to (infect a product) all the way back at the factory - getting it through all the checks and balances -- would be pretty hard to do," he said. "But doing it at the store, where there might be loose return policies, and (where) they put it back on the shelf - you are not going to get a million infections, but you might get a person from an investment bank next door."
Yet, among the major threats to consumers' PCs and data, infection by a consumer product is a relatively minor one, said Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer for antivirus firm F-Secure, adding: "It'll happen."
Consumers will have to be careful with any device that can be connected to a PC, including USB thumb drives, GPS devices, mobile phones, video players, set top boxes, portable hard drives, memory card readers, and eventually even microwave ovens and other appliances, he said.
Wal-Mart, the owner of Sam's Club, told the ISC that its security team had randomly checked several dozen picture frames and did not find additional infections, Sachs said. A representative of Wal-Mart reached by SecurityFocus could not immediately comment on the issue.
This article originally appeared in Security Focus.
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