TSA Carry-On Baggage Scanners Easy To HackResearchers reveal weak security that could allow malicious insiders or attackers to spoof the contents of carry-on baggage
KASPERSKY SECURITY ANALYST SUMMIT 2014 -- Punta Cana, Dominican Republic -- A widely deployed carry-on baggage X-ray scanner used in most airports could easily be manipulated by a malicious TSA insider or an outside attacker to sneak weapons or other banned items past airline security checkpoints.
Billy Rios, director of threat intelligence at Qualys, here today said he and colleague Terry McCorkle purchased a secondhand Rapiscan 522 B X-ray system via eBay and found several blatant security weaknesses that leave the equipment vulnerable to abuse: It runs on the outdated Windows 98 operating system, stores user credentials in plain text, and includes a feature called Threat Image Projection used to train screeners by injecting .bmp images of contraband, such as a gun or knife, into a passenger carry-on in order to test the screener's reaction during training sessions. The weak logins could allow a bad guy to project phony images on the X-ray display.
"The worst-case scenario is someone manipulates this in a way that the operator doesn't know a threat is in the bag ... by design, the software allows you to manipulate the image for training [purposes]," he says.
"The TSA requires this super-dangerous feature on all of these baggage scanners," Rios says.
The researchers have reported the flaws to ICS-CERT. Rapiscan Systems had not responded to a press inquiry for this article at the time of this posting.
"This reminded me a lot of voting machines. When you design these government systems under procurement rules, you end up using old stuff. No one is paying attention to updating it, so security is crap because no one is analyzing it," says Bruce Schneier, CTO of Co3 Systems. "Stuff done in secret gets really shoddy security ... We know what gives us security is the constant interplay between the research community and vendors."
The Rapiscan vulnerabilities only scratch the surface of security weaknesses in the TSA screening systems in U.S. airports, Rios says. He and McCorkle also plan to experiment with other equipment used at TSA security checkpoints, and to explore whether the so-called TSANet network that links major hubs like Atlanta, Chicago, and LAX airports could be accessed via a WiFi or cable in the airport, for example. "If we can get to that network from WiFi [or cable], that would be pretty interesting," Rios says.
Rapiscan has a rocky history with TSA: Last year, it lost its contract with the feds for its backscatter body scanners after failing to address privacy issues raised about the detailed body images the system produced and stored. Most recently, the baggage scanner system contract was canceled after TSA learned that the X-ray machines contain a light bulb that was manufactured by a Chinese company. (TSA systems cannot include foreign-made parts).
Rapiscan's baggage scanners remain in most airports, meanwhile, even though its contract with TSA is now defunct.
Rios and McCorkle were able to bypass the login screen merely by typing in a user name with a special character, which forced an error and then logged them in. In addition, they were able to see stored user credentials in clear text in the simple database store. A screener, which is a lower-level user of the system, could easily escalate his privileges by grabbing one of those logins from an unprotected file in the system, or via the login bypass flaw. "There's no two-factor" authentication in the console, Rios says.
"These bugs are actually embarrassing. It was embarrassing to report them to DHS -- the ability to bypass the login screen. These are really lame bugs," Rios says.
But it's not really the vendor's fault when it comes to these types of weaknesses, he says. "The TSA had no device cybersecurity policy. It's the TSA's fault," he says. "The TSA operators have no expertise if the device is compromised, and they could be put in very precarious positions."
The good news is that the researchers have seen no evidence of the TSA carry-on baggage screening systems being connected to the Internet. Even so, Rios says, it would only take one malicious insider from one airport to wreak havoc on TSA checkpoint security.
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Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio