Attack of the USB Killers: Coming to Your Clients’ Classrooms

What are USB Killers, and what does their existence say about the security behind your classroom/higher ed tech installations?

This article was originally published on Commerical Integrator on May 6, 2019

Last month, a former student of the College of St. Rose in New York pled guilty to destroying “66 computers as well as numerous monitors and digital podiums containing USB data ports owned by the College.” The damage was done using a “USB Killer” device that discharged high voltage pulses into the host device, physically damaging the host’s electrical system.

According to the court documents, the total losses due to the incident were 58,471 USD. A quick Google search shows that these “USB Killer” devices are readily available on websites like Ebay for around 40 USD.

Details of the “digital podiums” were not released, but any AV integrator who has done work in higher education institutions could probably guess they were lecterns or teaching stations outfitted with room computers, portable laptop connections, confidence monitors, control touch panels, media switchers, and/or playback devices.

The “numerous monitors” in the court documents could have been simple computer monitors, or larger wall-mounted flat panel displays often used for small-group collaboration.

Motive? Doesn’t Matter

The motives of the attacker are unclear, and in the end, are essentially irrelevant. What is relevant is that the same thing could easily happen at another university, K-12 school, company, or house of worship.

Security experts have shown that USB drives and cables can be built to perform HID attacks, launch command shells, download malicious payloads, and/or modify the DNS settings to redirect traffic.

But more importantly, any USB memory device (a.k.a. USB stick or thumb-drive) could contain files that are infected with malware.

One penetration tester that I spoke to said he often drops off a handful of infected USB drives at hospitals and medical buildings.

The USB drives appear to be harmless freebies, and eventually an employee uses one, opens the file, and the test payload is delivered.

He said that the USB drive attack vector is not as effective as email phishing campaigns, but it is still part of his testing.

When I first shared the College of St. Rose story, many #AVTweeps commented that little could be done:

“It’s hard to protect against physical attacks. If you do block the USB port or somehow protect it from electrical discharge, the attacker could smash it with a hammer.” – Leonard C. Suskin (@Czhorat)

“Without an option to disable the port completely for both data and power transfer, there is little anyone could do in this instance. With physical access, all bets are off…”Kevin (@kevin_maltby)

What Can Be Done About USB Killers

I agree that if someone is truly intent on causing damage, they will find a way, but I think there are still some things that can be done to minimize the impact and likelihood of a USB-based attack.

First, make sure that all members of your organization have signed a computer usage policy, and formally agree to not destroy computer hardware.

Next, consider remoting all computers in locked data closets, and always lock classroom podiums and AV credenzas to minimize access.

Use card-keys or biometric scanners to allow limited access to server rooms, and add IP cameras to these rooms so you can prove who actually did the deed. This is called attribution, and is often a challenge in cybersecurity.

USB attacks should also be outlined in your cyber-awareness training, so that everyone knows to not use random USB drives or charging cables they find.

Last but not least, you should have an incident response plan that anticipates USB attacks, and communicate that plan, so everyone knows what to do in case of a “USB Killer” attack. It may seem unlikely, but it’s certainly possible, and it is best to be prepared for it.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like these related posts on PKaudiovisual:

Design Principles For Secure AV Systems

Identifying Cyber Attacks, Risks, Vulnerabilities in AV Installations

5 Steps to Better Cyber Risk Management

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Hackathons and Cash for Hackers: What the AV Industry Needs

AV, IoT and automation manufacturers need to better understand zero-day vulnerability. Trade show hackathons and cash for hackers should be seriously considered.

This article was originally published on Commercial Integrator on April 1, 2019

In the AV industry, the concept of hackathons at tradeshows or actually paying a hacker to exploit a networked AV product or system is usually relegated to a fun topic of discussion – but perhaps they should be considered far more seriously.

A zero-day vulnerability is one where the manufacturer, vendor, and end-user are not aware of the security risk until after the system has been in use for a period of time.  Often, they are not made aware of the vulnerability until it is exploited by hackers, which is called a zero-day exploit. Zero-day vulns are often considered a software topic, but AV/IoT devices, firmware, and control systems are also at risk.

The zero-day vulnerability timeline goes like this:

  1. Vulnerability is discovered by a black-hat hacker. (More on that term later.)
  2. Vulnerability is exploited, attack is launched, system is hacked, data integrity is breached.
  3. Vendor is made aware of the vulnerability. This day is considered “Day Zero.”
  4. Vendor works on a solution to the vulnerability, this takes some time.
  5. Vendor releases a security update and hopes end-users implement it.

Sometimes the vuln is discovered by a “white-hat” or “grey-hat” researcher, but it is hard to say if these ethical hackers were the first to discover the problem, or if the bad guys have already exploited the vulnerability, and just have not been found out yet.

There are anomaly-based intrusion detection systems that are able to detect some unknown, zero-day exploits, but finding vulnerabilities in IoT and audiovisual devices often takes some smart humans kicking the tires, and picking the locks, so to speak.

What do hackers do when they discover a zero-day vulnerability?

There are three typical tracks:

  1. Full Disclosure – release the details of the vulnerability to the public and vendor simultaneously. This forces the vendor to react quickly, but it also alerts the bad guys of the vulnerability.
  2. Responsible Disclosure – contact the vendor directly about the vulnerability, and give them time to release a patch to their end-users before fully disclosing the vulnerability to the public.
  3. Black Markets and Grey Markets – hackers and researchers sometimes sell their findings to vulnerability exploit brokers, who can then re-sell them to the vendors, nation-states, or competitors. Oftentimes, the hacker does not know who the vulnerability buyer is, or of their intentions. Many are only incentivized by the money and the challenge of finding the bugs.

Some software vendorsonline service providers, and research firms are offering big rewards for zero day vulns.

Let’s Grow Up When It Comes to Cybersecurity

In this writer’s opinion, the AV industry should follow the example set by their big IT brothers and sisters; even if an AV company can’t pay out such large sums of money, there should be some sort of cash incentives for finding security vulnerabilities in AV systems. This could happen on three levels:

  1. At the manufacturer level – offer bug bounties for white-hat hackers who report vulnerabilities.
  2. At the integration level – setup knowledge bases of custom code and configurations, and reward other programmers, engineers, and technicians who can find any vulnerabilities in the systems.
  3. At the user level – reward any employee who raises a security concern about a device or process.

There have been some recent online discussions about setting up “hack-a-thons” at AV-industry trade shows. I think this is a fantastic idea to encourage AV security, reward hackers, and spread awareness.

-Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

If you enjoyed this article, you might like these related posts on PKaudiovisual:

Design Principles For Secure AV Systems

Identifying Cyber Attacks, Risks, Vulnerabilities in AV Installations

5 Steps to Better Cyber Risk Management

The Best Data Breach Incident Response Plans Require These Steps