Endpoint

3/15/2018
10:30 AM
Menny Barzilay
Menny Barzilay
Commentary
Connect Directly
LinkedIn
Twitter
Facebook
RSS
E-Mail vvv
100%
0%

Voice-Operated Devices, Enterprise Security & the 'Big Truck' Attack

The problem with having smart speakers and digital assistants in the workplace is akin to having a secure computer inside your office while its wireless keyboard is left outside for everyone to use.

Let's welcome the new members to the cybersecurity threat landscape, ladies and gentleman, a big round of applause for ... sensors! As you undoubtedly know, the Internet of things (IoT) is enabled by sensors, allowing smart devices to respond to their environment by registering voices, movements, temperature changes, smells, and more.  

Sensors also introduce new cybersecurity challenges, not the least of which stem from voice-operated devices, smart speakers, and digital assistants such as Amazon Echo with its accompanying Alexa Voice Service (nicknamed "Alexa"). Though most voice-operated devices are considered primarily to be consumer products, these devices eventually will reach the corporate world (if they have not already), where they will present unique challenges when connected to corporate networks holding sensitive data.  

The "Big Truck" Attack
Imagine the following scenario: Take a big truck. (Yes, an actual physical truck.) Load it with huge speakers. Set the volume to maximum. Drive around New York, Berlin, London, or any other big city. Play a recording with various dangerous voice commands for Alexa (or any other voice-activated device). Sit back and watch the world burn.

Since you can use Alexa to do many things such as write emails, access data, and operate other smart devices, the ability to control it remotely could potentially cause data leakages, disruption of processes, and data integrity problems.

The Vocal Perimeter
By this point, I assume that you have guessed one of my two main points. Up until now, restricting access to sensitive systems by using physical means was, more or less, an easy job. Our offices have walls, locks, and security guards. With voice-operated sensors, it is not always possible to limit access through traditional security measures. Think of it as having a secure computer inside your office and its wireless keyboard outside for everyone to use.

I experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I gave a television interview about Alexa and privacy some time ago. After the interview, several people called me and told me that each time I said "Alexa" on TV, their devices entered the "listening" mode. That was an "aha moment" for me. My ability to control people's smart devices through the TV amazed me. After a while, it started happening to others as well. You might also have heard about the "dollhouse case" or the Burger King ad (which plays after a YouTube ad).

What Doesn't Work?
Biometric authentication, for one, doesn't solve the problem. In theory, Alexa could learn to identify authorized people's voices and listen only to the commands they give. But while this seems like a possible solution, the opposite is actually true. To begin with, there is an inherent trade-off between usability and security. Implementing such a system means that users would have to go through an onboarding process to teach Alexa or any other voice-enabled device how they sound. Compared to the status quo, where Alexa works out of the box, we are talking about a serious degradation in user comfortability.

Biometric identification also means false positives: if your voice sounds different because you are sick, sleepy, or eating, Alexa will probably not accept you as an authorized user. And this is not all — there are systems available (like this example of Adobe VoCo) that, by using a person's voice sample saying one thing, can generate a new sample of his voice saying another thing.

Haven't We Solved this Problem?
Yes, we faced similar challenges with Wi-Fi networks in the corporate world. While these networks are also not limited by physical walls, the use of encryption and passwords proved to be a straightforward solution, separating approved from unapproved users.

It is true that we could force password usage with voice-operated devices ("Alexa, password 1337, please turn off the lights.") But … in the cybersecurity domain, saying the password out loud is not considered to be the most secure method for authentication. Another possible solution would be changing the activation word for voice-operated devices. Instead of calling Alexa "Alexa," you would choose a unique name. This will dramatically reduce our ability to execute The Big Truck Attack. But you'll be forced to say the new name out loud every time you operate a device, preventing it from becoming a strong security measure.

While for some "home users" this risk might be acceptable, it will not pass muster on the corporate side. Worse, in many cases, it would be extremely dangerous to connect voice-operated devices (as well as other types of sensor-operated devices) to sensitive networks — and one should refrain from doing so.

Mission Not Impossible
One possible solution is taking a multidevice approach. In this scenario, several devices would be able to identify approved users simultaneously, dramatically improving security. For example, when Alexa hears a user speaks, she will "ask" his smartwatch for identification confirmation. The smartwatch, being able to "hear" him/her through the voice vibrations inside their body, would match Alexa's received command with the one she just heard. If both match, this can be considered a two-step authentication.

A similar scenario can be achieved with video cameras, matching face and mouth movements to the commands Alexa hears. The camera could tell Alexa, "Yes, I know this guy. He is cool." Still, in any case, we are facing a complicated situation that requires extensive research. Voice identification may solve some of the issues for home users, but it is still far from being suitable for highly sensitive corporate networks.

Related Content:

Interop ITX 2018

Join Dark Reading LIVE for two cybersecurity summits at Interop ITX. Learn from the industry’s most knowledgeable IT security experts. Check out the security track here.

Menny Barzilay is co-founder and CEO of FortyTwo Global, Cyber Security Professional Services (Israel) and partner and co-founder of FortyTwo R&D Labs (India). Additionally, he is the CTO of the Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center at the Tel-Aviv University and the ... View Full Bio
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
SchemaCzar
100%
0%
SchemaCzar,
User Rank: Strategist
3/16/2018 | 10:54:15 AM
IMPORTANT ARTICLE! Always-on voice recognition is a technology ahead of its safety
Anyone who doesn't treat Alexa or other voice-activated technology as the listening, and possibly spying, devices that they are is crazy.  These devices have nowhere near the precautions they need to keep their users safe.  It's not impossible to consider ways in which they could be made safe, but as the article makes clear, the technology to enforce those approaches is not deployed and probably not mature.

If I found one of them anywhere near an executive office, I would read them the riot act.
Diversity: It's About Inclusion
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  4/25/2018
Coviello: Modern Security Threats are 'Less About the Techniques'
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  4/24/2018
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
How to Cope with the IT Security Skills Shortage
Most enterprises don't have all the in-house skills they need to meet the rising threat from online attackers. Here are some tips on ways to beat the shortage.
Flash Poll
[Strategic Security Report] How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Problem
[Strategic Security Report] How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Problem
Enterprises are spending more of their IT budgets on cybersecurity technology. How do your organization's security plans and strategies compare to what others are doing? Here's an in-depth look.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2017-0290
Published: 2017-05-09
NScript in mpengine in Microsoft Malware Protection Engine with Engine Version before 1.1.13704.0, as used in Windows Defender and other products, allows remote attackers to execute arbitrary code or cause a denial of service (type confusion and application crash) via crafted JavaScript code within ...

CVE-2016-10369
Published: 2017-05-08
unixsocket.c in lxterminal through 0.3.0 insecurely uses /tmp for a socket file, allowing a local user to cause a denial of service (preventing terminal launch), or possibly have other impact (bypassing terminal access control).

CVE-2016-8202
Published: 2017-05-08
A privilege escalation vulnerability in Brocade Fibre Channel SAN products running Brocade Fabric OS (FOS) releases earlier than v7.4.1d and v8.0.1b could allow an authenticated attacker to elevate the privileges of user accounts accessing the system via command line interface. With affected version...

CVE-2016-8209
Published: 2017-05-08
Improper checks for unusual or exceptional conditions in Brocade NetIron 05.8.00 and later releases up to and including 06.1.00, when the Management Module is continuously scanned on port 22, may allow attackers to cause a denial of service (crash and reload) of the management module.

CVE-2017-0890
Published: 2017-05-08
Nextcloud Server before 11.0.3 is vulnerable to an inadequate escaping leading to a XSS vulnerability in the search module. To be exploitable a user has to write or paste malicious content into the search dialogue.