I recently had an unpleasant experience related to online security issues. Somehow my account information for a large online game had been compromised. The speed in which the automated systems detected that the account had been hacked into and locked it down is a testament to how many compromised accounts this particular service provider handles on a daily basis. Likewise, the account status was restored with equally impressive turn-around time.
What impacted me the most about this experience was realizing that there is obviously at least one way that malicious entities can compromise a password protected system despite significant precautions to prevent such a thing from occurring. Keeping the account name and password secret; employing software to detect and protect against viruses, Trojan horses, or key loggers; as well as ensuring that data between my computer and the service provider is encrypted was not enough to keep the account safe.
The service provider’s efficiency and matter-of-fact approach to handling this situation suggests there are known ways to circumvent the security measures. The service provider offers and suggests using an additional layer of security by using single-use passwords from a device they sell for a few bucks and charge nothing for shipping.
As more embedded systems support online connectivity, the opportunity for someone to break into those systems increases. The motivations for breaking into these systems are myriad. Sometimes, such as in the case of my account that was hacked, there is the opportunity for financial gain. In other cases, there is notoriety for demonstrating that a system has vulnerability. In yet other cases, there may be the desire to cause physical harm, and it is this type of motivation that begs this week’s question.
When I first started working with computers in a professional manner, I found out there were ways to damage equipment through software. The most surprising example involved making a large line printer destroy itself by sending a particular sequence of characters to the printer such that it would cause all of the carriage hammers to repeatedly strike the ribbon at the same time. By spacing the sequence of characters with blank lines, a print job could actually make a printer that weighed several hundred pounds start rocking back and forth. If the printer was permitted to continue this behavior, mechanical parts could be severely damaged.
It is theoretically possible to perform analogous types of things with industrial equipment, and with more systems connected to remote or public networks, the opportunities for such mischief are real. Set top boxes that are attached to televisions are connecting to the network – offering a path for mischief if the designers of the set top box and/or television unintentionally left an opening in the system for someone to exploit.
Is considering the security implications in an embedded design needed? Where is the line between when implementing embedded security is important versus when it is a waste of resources? Are the criteria for when embedded security is needed based on the end device or on the system that such device operates within? Who should be responsible for making that call?
Tags: Risk Management