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The Internet Of Tiny Things: What Lurks Inside

Hackers can now use a tiny $2 embedded chip -- at scale -- to launch thousands of infected 'things' out into the ether to capture data and soften consumers up for an attack.

Imagine this: you’re handed a free phone charger at a tech conference and you accept it, knowing that your phone battery isn’t likely to survive the day. Little do you know that a tiny device is embedded within the charger, capturing data and softening you up for an eventual attack.

Sound like an unlikely threat? Think again.

Between the many stories of hacked refrigerators, automobiles, medical devices, webcams, baby monitors and more, the dangers of the Internet of things (IoT) has been thrust into the spotlight. However, not much consideration has gone into IoT devices being utilized to attack legacy IT devices.

With the IoT economy expected to be worth $1.7 trillion by 2020, according to IDC, the cost and form factor of IoT devices is dropping exponentially while the computing power approaches that of what can be achieved with a “non-thing” device. Believe it or not, with these technology advancements, hackers can now use a tiny $2 IoT chip at scale for malicious purposes - launching thousands of infected-things out into the ether. Because the size of these chips is so small, they can be easily inserted into USB chargers and memory sticks and piggyback off the power supply they are a part of.

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Victims and carriers of these devices might be unaware that such small things can harbor such risks, exposing both individuals and organizations to considerable threat of cyberattack.

An example of this is an IoT chip called the ESP-01 8266, which is a low cost Wi-Fi chip with full TCP/IP stack and an embedded microcontroller. Roughly the size of a quarter, this chip is available for less than two dollars per unit, weighs less than five grams, and comes in over twelve form factors varying in physical size. These same chips are often used for embedded devices such as temperature sensors or controllers placed on lightweight drones. 

The largest form factor is the ESP-12E chip, which can be used to demonstrate how both active and passive WiFi attacks can be conducted using a cheap and self-contained device like a phone charger. Passive attacks listen for unencrypted WiFi communication, which the majority of public hotspots are configured for. Active attacks, on the other hand, may spoof a well-known service set identifier (SSID) and attempt to socially engineer a user to install a bad profile on their mobile device or cryptographically intercept sensitive information such as email traffic.

These passive and active exploits have even been conducted on a much smaller scale with the ESP-01 chip, a device so small it can fit inside a mobile phone charger. This charger can covertly act as the chip’s power source and whenever the victim plugs their charger into a power source, the chip is activated. The chip seeks out open WiFi networks, and if available, calls-home for the next over-the-air (OTA) update. There are many nefarious applications the chip can run including serving malicious profiles to nearby devices. It can also passively monitor neary SSIDs/BSSIDs to approximate the charger’s current location and transmit that back to the hacker. (Click here for more on this project.)

So with all this in mind, what’s on the horizon for the ESP8266 form factor?

The current family of ESPs are small and cheap but underpowered for any complex cryptographic function. However, as technology advances, the chip will continue to evolve. In fact, the new ESP32 adds additional computing power and the ability to use Bluetooth and WiFi simultaneously. This may lead to seeing the ESP chip-set being used for more active attacks and man-in-the-middle spoofing. So the next time you’re at a conference and you’re handed a free charger, you may want to think twice about what might be lurking inside.

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Kirsten Powell, Senior Manager for Security & Risk Management at Adobe
Joshua Goldfarb, Director of Product Management at F5