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03:45 PM

FBI Warns Travelers Using Hotel Networks About New Attack

The FBI says attackers are trying to trick users into installing malware with promises of software updates

The FBI is warning travelers to be wary of attempts to infect their computers when they log on to hotel networks.

In an intelligence note from the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3), the agency says that attackers have been targeting travelers abroad when they use the Internet connection in their hotel rooms. According to the FBI, when the victims attempted to set up the hotel room Internet connection, they were presented with a pop-up window notifying them to update a "widely used software product."

"If the user clicked to accept and install the update, malicious software was installed on the laptop," according to IC3. "The pop-up window appeared to be offering a routine update to a legitimate software product for which updates are frequently available."

The FBI recommends checking the author or digital certificate of any prompted update to see whether it corresponds to the software vendor. This might reveal whether it is an attempted attack, according to the feds.

Jeff Hudson, CEO of key management vendor Venafi, says it is also a "wake-up call" for IT pros who manage their organizations' vast certificate and software update programs.

"[IT pros] need to understand that end users are typically the weakest link in the security chain," he says. "To compensate, they need to adopt automated security processes that eliminate the unquantifiable risk that arises from human error and misunderstanding. Organizations that automate and centrally manage security and compliance processes reduce their risk of a data breach significantly."

In December, Bloomberg reported that iBAHN, one of the largest providers of hotel Internet service in the world, had been compromised, but iBAHN denied the report. The FBI warning does not include any information about specific hotel chains or service providers.

However, the agency advised government, private industry, and academics traveling abroad take extra caution.

"The FBI also recommends that travelers perform software updates on laptops immediately before traveling, and that they download software updates directly from the software vendor’s Web site if updates are necessary while abroad," the advisory notes.

Stephen Cobb, security evangelist with ESET, advises road warriors to restrict their use of public or hotel WiFi to reputable establishments that offer WPA-level encrypted access, but notes the type of attack the FBI described can be executed over wired access as well.

"The red flag is any Internet service you encounter on the road that asks you to install something. If the access is legitimate, it will not need you to install software or updates," he says. "If I was head of IT security, I would be putting out a memo telling employees who travel: 'Do not install any software updates requested by hotel Internet service or any public Wi-Fi you connect to.' While many corporate laptops are configured to only accept updates from the IT department, I would still issue the warning because this is a fairly specific threat, and you don't want to rely on software controls only. And I would advise anyone who is traveling with a laptop to make sure they have antivirus software installed and active on their machines before they begin their journey."

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