The scan, which took about two hours using a handful of computers, discovered a quarter of a million systems that understood the H.323 protocol, widely used by Internet protocol (IP) communication systems. Using that list, Moore, the chief security officer for vulnerability-management firm Rapid7, used a module for the popular Metasploit framework to "dial" each server, connect long enough to grab the public handshake packets, and then dropped the connection.
"Any machine that accepted a call was set to auto answer," Moore says. "It was fairly easy to figure out who was vulnerable, because if they weren't vulnerable, then they would not have picked up the call."
Using the information, Moore and Rapid7 CEO Mike Tuchen identified 5,000 videoconferencing systems that were set to automatically answer incoming calls, allowing a knowledgeable attacker to essentially gain a front-row seat inside corporate meetings.
Videoconferencing systems that automatically answer incoming calls can be turned on externally by an attacker without attracting the attention of people in the boardroom. In tests on systems in Rapid7's lab, the researchers found that the system could listen into nearby conversations and record video of the surrounding environment -- even read e-mail from a laptop screen and passwords off of a sticky note that was 20 feet away.
While the number of vulnerable systems may be small -- about 150,000 across the Internet, Moore estimates -- the technique returned an interesting set of targets, he says.
"What made this interesting is that you are only going to find places that can afford $25,000 videoconferencing systems, so it's a pretty self-selecting set of targets," Moore says.
[Bringing together groups of employees in a company with internal intelligence can help detect rogue insiders earlier, say experts. See Workers, Technology Need To Team To Fight Insiders.]
The lion's share of the videoconferencing systems found by Moore's experiment were made by Polycom, a leading manufacturer of the systems that mostly ship with their auto-answering functionality enabled. Companies using equipment from other manufacturers likely turned on the feature to make videoconferencing as problem free as possible.
Yet using such systems securely requires only a few, if not always simple, steps, says Joshua Talbot, security intelligence manager at Symantec. First, the information-technology team needs to known the ins and outs of any deployed technology as well as the requirements to use the technology securely.
"People definitely want to be familiar with the products they are deploying," he says. "Companies that adopt a new technology should become aware of the security risks that they are bringing into the environment."
Many employees likely look at a videoconferencing systems like a phone: They don't expect it to just work and not to answer a call without user interaction. Turning auto- answer off makes videoconferencing systems act more like the phones with which workers are familiar.
Yet like many products that have not been closely scrutinized by the security community, videoconferencing systems may have a large number of latent vulnerabilities, Talbot says. In 2011, at least 30 vulnerabilities were reported in videoconferencing products, according to Symantec's data. Rapid7 found security issues in the administrative interfaces and Web servers used to manage the videoconferencing systems, as well.
Policy should also be modified to handle the special problems that a new technology might pose for a company's security posture, Talbot says. The systems should always be put behind a firewall -- a step that some IT teams may skip if the system is acting unreliably.
"Don't take the easy way out and just get it configured outside the firewall just because that is the easiest way to make it work," he says.
Finally, companies can take the same tactic as Moore and scan their own networks. Metasploit, originally created by Moore and now managed by Rapid7, contains modules for scanning for H.323 services.
Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.