Is Web-connected TV the New Power Play for Hackers?

Over the holidays I had the fortune of being quoted in the New York Times. This came out of an interview I had with NYT writer Ashlee Vance about the recent discovery of security weaknesses in Web-connected HDTVs. Researchers at Mocana, a security services company in the Bay Area, identified a number of  vulnerabilities in one of the most popular Internet-enabled televisions. This is the first major security incident for a product category that is very likely to become wildly popular, but I doubt it will be the last.

In the hacking community, cracked systems equal power. Such power may be tangible, such as a botnet available for hire, or simply the social power derived from compromising a particularly high profile target. But as more interesting devices appear on the Internet—such as smart phones, TVs, and even refrigerators—there will be an inevitable shift in focus within the hacking community toward these. This is because these new devices represent enormous potential for the consolidation of new power.

The motivation to attack connected devices isn’t simply to target a new platform that might contain trivial vulnerabilities (though for some, this may be enough). The real attraction here is the sheer number of nodes; this, fundamentally, is about volume. It is estimated that  by the end of 2010, Apple will have shipped around 75 million iPhones. (To put this number into perspective, by July 2010, Microsoft announced it had shipped 150M units of Windows 7.) The iPhone alone represents an enormous injection of computing power onto the Internet, delivered over the course of only 3 1/2 years.

Now, the iPhone happens to be a remarkably stable and secure platform, thanks in part to Apple’s rigid curation of the hardware, software, and surrounding app eco-system. But what is interesting to note is how quickly a new Internet platform can spread, and how much of the total global computing horsepower this can represent. The consumer world, by virtue of its size, its fads and caprice,  its unprecendented spending power, can shift the balance of computing power in months (iPads, anyone?). Today the connected-device explosion centers around mobile phones, but tomorrow it can easily be web-connected TVs, smart power meters, or iToilets. This radical change to Internet demographics—from the servers and desktop, to things and mobile—will prove irresistible to the hacking community.

What is troubling about the vulnerabilities Mocona found is how simplistic these were. Device manufacturers must place far greater emphasis on basic system security. What will happen when the next wildly-popular consumer device is exposed to the full cutting-torch of hacker attention? It is going to be an interesting decade…


2 responses to “Is Web-connected TV the New Power Play for Hackers?

  1. Scott, this is a tantalizing and disturbing new trend, though my gut tells me it likely won’t end up being as big a deal as the media makes it out to be. I’d like to know: will the router’s firewall offer any protection? If not, will the software firewall in the computers on the home network protect you against intrusions from the compromised HDTV?

  2. Carl:
    The particular vulnerabilities that Mocana found have to do with the way the TV loads content from the Web. The TV is actually acting as a client here, initiating the download. Unfortunately, a firewall won’t help much here, because it needs to allow the TV to make outgoing connections. The manufacturer really needs to tighten up it’s implementation.

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