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Vulnerabilities / Threats

Low-Cost PCs Pose Risk

Benefactors look to secure millions of identical computers to be unleashed in One Laptop Per Child initiative

In the first half of 2007, a new laptop will be on the market. Priced at about $100, it will work very differently from today's laptops, but it will ship in the millions, right out of the chute. It will also pose some interesting security problems -- and some interesting solutions.

You can't buy them for your business -- or even your home. Because the new machines are being developed exclusively for sale to children in developing countries under the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

The OLPC, a technology initiative originally founded at MIT and now backed by companies such as Advanced Micro Devices, Google, Nortel, and Red Hat, is planning to sell the devices in batches of 1 million units or more to foreign governments across the world. Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, and Nigeria already have expressed interest in buying the machines when they are manufactured in large quantities at the beginning of 2007.

So far, OLPC technicians have cracked the hardware problem, using low-cost AMD processors and giving the machine only limited storage capabilities. They've solved the software problem, building on Linux as the operating system. They've handled the communications problem with wireless technology that lets the machines communicate via an ad hoc, no-cost network.

Now if they can just nail down that pesky security problem.

Ivan Krstic, one of OLPC's software architects, thinks he's got the OLPC security problem solved, but he attracted some attention last week when he asked the hackers at the annual Toorcon conference to help him hack the kids' machines.

The OLPC is conducting a closed review of the specifications, and a public posting will likely follow in three to four weeks. "What I want is for some people to beat up on them," Krstic said in a phone interview on Friday. "We're creating a new, unknown environment, and we have to throw out our old ways of figuring out what's vulnerable," he said. "I'm hoping [hackers] will find things I haven't thought of yet."

The OLPC environment presents some interesting -- and potentially dangerous -- security challenges, Krstic observed. First, all of the laptops will be configured exactly the same way. "It creates one of the biggest computing monocultures in the world -- it's scary because of its scale," he said. "Potentially, if an attacker found a way to break into one machine, he could break into all of them."

To defeat such attacks, Kristic has created a software environment in which applications are walled off from each other, rather than being interconnected, as Windows apps are. "You could break into one of these machines, but it would be like being in a walled garden -- you wouldn't be able to get anywhere else," he says.

This "walled" application concept means that the OLPC laptops can be connected over a open, wireless mesh network without creating huge security concerns, Krstic said. In fact, children will be encouraged to share applications, and can actively invite others to pull software from their computers, he added.

The machines will work mostly in the wireless mesh network, but Krstic does expect them to connect to the Internet, most likely through servers and ISP connections already established in many schools. However, because of the very different operating environment and the walled nature of the applications, he doesn't expect much malware to sneak into -- or out of -- the OLPC network. "You can't even bring an OLPC machine into a botnet -- it won't work," he said.

The machines will be made with components that can be taken apart and put back together, Krstic said. "We're encouraging kids to hack these machines, take them apart and tinker with them, because that's how they learn," he said. The devices will have the ability to upload files to a backup server, so even if a user loses applications or files, they will be immediately recoverable.

One of the tricks of the OLPC environment is creating a BIOS that always works, Krstic said. The new machines include a "fully trusted" BIOS chip that is encrypted with two algorithms and two hashes, making it extremely difficult to hack. "If you can guarantee that the BIOS will stay functional, you know that there will be code available," he said. "Even if a machine is wiped clean, it should be possible to recover it."

But before the new machines are sold, Krstic wants hackers to test out the software and security processes to be sure he hasn't missed anything. "I'm hoping they won't find anything," he says. "But if they do, I want to deal with it before these machines are out there in the millions."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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