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Sea Craft Voyage Data Systems Vulnerable To Tampering, Spying

Remote attackers could snoop on or corrupt the systems that collect and store radar images, vessels' position and speed, and audio recorded in the ships' bridge or engine room.

The researcher who has discovered security weaknesses in satellite communications is now uncovering vulnerabilities in voyage data recorder systems (VDRs) used by cargo ships, cruise ships, and other sea craft. Remote, unauthenticated attackers might exploit the weaknesses to spy on crew's conversations and tamper with "black box" data investigators would use to discover the cause of an accident -- including radar images, the vessel's position and speed, and audio recorded in the ship's bridge or engine room.

Ruben Santamarta, principal security consultant for IOActive, wrote today about his findings from static analysis and QEMU emulation of the Furumu VR-3000 VDR firmware and software.

Although the VDR is the closest thing seacraft have to an aircraft's "black box," it's very different in terms of access controls. An aircraft's system is intended to be tamper-proof, inaccessible by the pilot and the rest of the crew. Conversely, says Santamarta in an interview with Dark Reading, "It [a VDR] shouldn't be used by everybody but technically the VDR belongs to the vessel's owner. So this basically means that the captain and certain members of the crew have to know how to operate it in case of an emergency. It may be locked but still accessible for authorized personnel."

In his blog today, Santamarta notes two prior examples of VDR tampering. In February 2012, two Indian fishermen were shot by Italian marines who said they thought the fishermen were pirates. The incident caused a diplomatic conflict and an investigation into whether what the Italian marines said was true. The VDR recordings on the Italian craft could have substantiated or discredited the marines' claims, but the Indian Times reported "a preliminary probe into the incident found that the VDR was tampered with" and the records corrupted.

The following month, there was a hit-and-run incident off the southern coast of India. Again, VDR files were tampered with, apparently because a member of the crew inserted a pen drive into the device, leading to rewriting of files and loss of voice data.

As Santamarta writes:

From a security perspective, it seems clear VDRs pose a really interesting target. If you either want to spy on a vessel’s activities or destroy sensitive data that may put your crew in a difficult position, VDRs are the key.

Unfortunately, according to Santmarta, in his blog, "almost the entire design [of the VDRs] should be considered insecure." Altogether they contributed to cause a vulnerability he found in the Furumu VR-3000's firmware upgrade process that allows remote, unauthenticated attackers to execute arbitrary commands with root privileges. 

"The design allows unauthenticated users to install a malicious firmware due to multiple weaknesses," says Santamarta, "weak encryption, unsigned firmware files, privileged endpoints and services exposed."

Although the vulnerability can be exploited by "remote" attackers, it is not directly via the Internet. "VDRs are not connected to the Internet (at least, they shouldn't)," says Santamarta. "The remote vector is related to the network onboard. Also, if this network is not properly segmented this may pose an attack vector for malware located in crew laptops or any other personal device."

Santamarta recommends that any data collected from these devices for forensic purposes should be carefully evaluated for signs of tampering.

"There is no standard way to store data [on VDRs] as the only requirement from the [International Maritime Organization] is that manufacturers should provide software to extract and playback the data," says Santamarta. "So each model should be analyzed separately."

Sara Peters is Senior Editor at Dark Reading and formerly the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad ... View Full Bio

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