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Too Smart For Their Own Good: Attacking Smart TVs

Black Hat researchers show how the watchers can become the watched through smart TV attack techniques

BLACK HAT USA -- LAS VEGAS -- Just like with mobile phones, the more advanced the common television gets, the more likely it can be turned against its users by attackers who can use embedded features, such as microphones, cameras, and lots of storage, to spy on people and steal their sensitive data. Yesterday at Black Hat USA, two different presentations offered research on how these activities can be carried out against the current generations of Smart TVs.

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It's a troubling development for consumers because, as researcher Seungjin Lee with Korea University put it, when a home computer is hacked there is usually just one main victim. But if a home television is hacked and the camera trained on its watchers, that affects the whole family and invades the most private areas of the home. However, remote attacks against smart TVs aren't just a consumer concern.

"I know some big companies like Google or Microsoft, they use smart TVs in their offices," he said. "It is not just about personal stuff or home privacy stuff. It is also about companies that administrate some sensitive data."

Lee demonstrated some rootkit technology he developed in order to gain complete control over a range of smart TVs for the purpose of spying on their owners. As he explained, the stationary nature of smart TVs actually make them much better for attackers to photograph or videotape victims than a similarly hacked smart phone. In his research on mobile devices, he has found that usually only about 1 percent of photos snapped are anything but a blurry mess. Additionally, unlike mobile devices, smart TV have persistent power, so a battery drain is not likely to alert a user about potential unwanted activity on the device.

Similar to Lee's talk, two researchers with iSEC Partners, Aaron Grattafiori and Josh Yavor, more specifically trained their exploratory research on Samsung TVs. They also found these televisions to be excellent spy platforms. In particular, they showed how these TVs' advanced functions were essentially being run as Web apps, with the same potential for vulnerabilities as Web apps in any other context. In particular, due to its use of the device's camera and microphone, Skype was a particularly juicy target.

"Skype was a mess on a smart TV," Grattafiori said. "Anything that could be entered by the user, you could inject JavaScript, and that would execute in the context of the application."

Other social media applications also made for great remote compromise targets, as well.

"Anyplace where we can get remote content injected, we can install a rootkit and have full system control anytime we boot up," he said. "And because it's a social media platform, we can distribute our code to smart TV users -- which means that we have created potential for a TV worm."

Even the TV's browser was ready to be compromised, with the researchers reporting that not only could they execute cross-site scripting on sites running on the browser, but also the browser itself.

"We can change your home page to be our attacker site so that before you even do anything at all, the next time you load the browser it hooks our code. We can start doing whatever we want at that point," Grattafiori said. "That's a cheap persistence trick."

As he puts it, this is a wake-up call for manufacturers to develop some cross-platform security for their smart TV products, and for their developers to remember the basics of Web app secure coding, especially sanitizing input and not trusting storage.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading.  View Full Bio

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