Teardown Of USB Fan Reveals Journalists’ Lack Of Opsec

Last month, Singapore hosted a summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States. Accredited journalists invited to the event were given a press kit containing a bottle of water, various paper goods, and a fan that plugs into a USB port.

Understandably, the computer security crowd on Twitter had a great laugh. You shouldn’t plug random USB devices into a computer, especially if you’re a journalist, especially if you’re in a foreign country, and especially if you’re reporting on the highest profile international summit in recent memory. Doing so is just foolhardy.

This is not a story about a USB fan, the teardown thereof, or of spy agencies around the world hacking journalists’ computers. This a story of the need for higher awareness on what we plug into our computers. In this case nothing came of it — the majority of USB devices are merely that and nothing more. One of the fans was recently torn down (PDF) and the data lines are not even connected. (I’ll dive into that later on in this article). But the anecdote provides an opportunity to talk about USB security and how the compulsion to plug every USB device into a computer should be interrupted by a few seconds of thoughtfulness first.

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France Proposes Software Security Liability For Manufacturers, Open Source As Support Ends

It sometimes seems as though barely a week can go by without yet another major software-related hardware vulnerability story. As manufacturers grapple with the demands of no longer building simple appliances but instead supplying them containing software that may expose itself to the world over the Internet, we see devices shipped with insecure firmware and little care for its support or updating after the sale.

The French government have a proposal to address this problem that may be of interest to our community, to make manufacturers liable for the security of a product while it is on the market, and with the possibility of requiring its software to be made open-source at end-of-life. In the first instance it can only be a good thing for device security to be put at the top of a manufacturer’s agenda, and in the second the ready availability of source code would present reverse engineers with a bonanza.

It’s worth making the point that this is a strategy document, what it contains are only proposals and not laws. As a 166 page French-language PDF it’s a long read for any Francophones among you and contains many other aspects of the French take on cybersecurity. But it’s important, because it shows the likely direction that France intends to take on this issue within the EU. At an EU level this could then represent a globally significant move that would affect products sold far and wide.

What do we expect to happen in reality though? It would be nice to think that security holes in consumer devices would be neutralised overnight and then we’d have source code for a load of devices, but we’d reluctantly have to say we’ll believe it when we see it. It is more likely that manufacturers will fight it tooth and nail, and given some recent stories about devices being bricked by software updates at the end of support we could even see many of them willingly consigning their products to the e-waste bins rather than complying. We’d love to be proven wrong, but perhaps we’re too used to such stories. Either way this will be an interesting story to watch, and we’ll keep you posted.

Merci beaucoup [Sebastien] for the invaluable French-language help.

French flag: Wox-globe-trotter [Public domain].