This page includes various examples of PC and not-so-obvious non-PC based attacks that have actually happened recently around the world. Computers now pervade every facet of our lives. Sometimes people forget that many daily appliances (i.e., refrigerator) and consumer electronics (i.e., TV) now contain very sophisticated computers that can be compromised.

Please revisit this page from time-to-time as I will continue to update it with other interesting examples.

First of all, security threats can be broken down into three general categories, and products designed to be “secure” need to be able to address and cope with each of these situations.

  • Physical threats – natural disasters, such as “acts of god,” including flood, fire, earthquakes, etc.
  • Logical threats – bugs in hardware, MTBF and power failures
  • Human threats – non-malicious and malicious threats, such as disgruntled employees and hackers

The following examples touch upon just the sub-category of malicious human threats.

PC based security issues – These are problems that affect working with a personal computer. Unlike traditional virus and malware attacks, here are some different attack vectors and methods:

  • Personal computer based
    • Ship with virus pre-installed via third-party software
      • Many consumers end up downloading “antivirus” software that are actually viruses themselves
    • Hard disk, USB and SD flash memory come pre-infected with viruses, Trojan horses and botnet software
    • Built-in cameras and microphones (especially laptops) can be turned on remotely and monitored
    • Digital photo frames, music players and other PC connectable peripherals can be pre-infected
    • Common attachments, such as PDFs, Word files, PowerPoint and Flash, can be exploited to attack a computer
  • USB flash memory
    • Supposedly “secure USB memory,” which is actually not secure because it uses a master unlock code that can be discovered
    • USB flash memory (and CD-ROMs – especially the kind that they give away at tradeshows) can have secret partitions with Trojan horse software installed
    • USB devices that look like ordinary memory devices which can automatically find, capture and copy all the stored passwords (i.e., login, web, VPN, etc.), web surfing history and other data from a target PC in a few seconds just by inserting it into the USB port
  • Other PC based peripherals
    • Small USB devices that can automatically and discretely capture keyboard input (including passwords) called keyloggers (which can also be software based)
    • Capturing transmitted keystrokes from a wireless keyboard from several meters away
    • USB based battery charger where the USB monitoring software application contains a virus
    • Web/internet camera with backdoor to allow remote viewing and access by unauthorized people from anywhere on the internet
      • Links to such cameras are easy to find with Google
      • These cameras typically run small web servers, which are also prone to attacks
    • Unencrypted backup tapes that include the most sensitive data (which is why they are backed up) and stolen by “cleaning crews”
    • Network interface cards (NIC) have complex firmware that can be hacked or modified to reroute network traffic or even read the main/write computer memory without the user’s knowledge
  • Open source software vulnerabilities
    • Android/Linux OS with backdoors written into the source code and compiled/used inadvertently in various consumer products
      • Software that runs servers, phones, routers, security appliances and access points could be affected
  • Cloud computing and storage
    • Computing and storage of sensitive data on numerous remote computers creates additional security risks
    • Ironically, today’s botnets are creating huge cloud computing platforms to carry out attacks from everyone’s PC and using the storage to hide illicit information

Non-PC based security issues – These are problems that are not necessarily personal computer-centric yet could potentially affect anyone and everyone:

  • Copy machines
    • Stealing internal hard disks that contain days of copied and scanned information
    • Trojan horse in the printer device driver
    • Implant program to bypass firewalls on the copier operating system
    • Installing watermarks so that printouts can be tracked
  • Cellular phones
    • Remotely activating microphones on cell phones even when the power is off
    • Ability to eavesdrop on calls made via a rogue femtocell station
  • VoIP based phones
    • The ability to record conversations between VoIP connections
  • Electric smart meters that record electricity consumption in real time can be remotely hacked to turn off power to a home, inflate usage or even detect when someone is not home

Other security examples – The following are just some examples of daily activities that affect (or are affected by) information security:

  • Smokers – People who go on smoking breaks outside statistically increase the number of attackers entering from the outside
  • Non-English based DNS names – For example, Cyrillic DNS names that look like common US based websites but go to completely different addresses
  • Common PIN numbers – A case where the PIN numbers for a locker system at a golf clubhouse was hacked and all the wallets had their cash withdrawn using the same PIN used to lock the locker
    • ATM card skimmers – Sophisticated card skimming hardware that is placed right on top of a card slot on a bank ATM machine, store credit card terminal or a gas station pump. These devices not only capture your magnetic stripe on the back of your card, but record your PIN numbers. That is why most ATM cash withdrawal thefts occur 5 minutes before and after midnight—to take advantage of two days of withdrawal limits.
  • GPS jammers – Car thieves use devices that emit at the same frequency as a GPS receiver, thus confusing the auto theft tracking system built into newer cars
  • Identity theft – Automobile and home titles are transfered by someone pretending to be the owner and quickly sold for cash
  • Denial of service (DoS) – Prior to 2003, most were always non-financial crimes. Today, most attacks are extortion attempts with regard to keeping sites up at critical times (e.g., illegal betting sites right before the Super Bowl)
  • Wireless access points – Thieves intercepting store transactions where networked cash registers and card terminals transmit customer credit card information over insecure wireless transmissions
  • Hotels – Most hotels use a shared network media where passwords, e-mail (SMTP, POP, IMAP) messages and other data can be captured in the room next door. This includes wireless connections from laptops in the conference room.
  • Deleting data – Most people know that when you delete data from your computer desktop, all you are really doing is deleting the index to that data. The data is still usually recoverable by simple tools; however, to truly erase data on today’s storage mediums, it is becoming increasingly difficult. Hard disks that are hundreds of gigabytes take hours to fully write over, and flash memory uses techniques called “write wear leveling” to “hide” data from the system to even out wear-and-tear. To really delete data on today’s modern storage mediums, you really need to physically destroy (not an endorsement) them. Here is a helpful resource if you are really paranoid: http://www.nsa.gov/ia/guidance/media_destruction_guidance/
  • High-end 3D graphics cards – The parallel processors found in high-end 3D graphics cards typically used for games and CAD are very well suited to solve brute-force security problems. The parallel computing architecture found in the boards are perfect for this type of “problem solving.”

Types of security threats – Today, security threats come in many forms. The following are three types of methods used by criminals to gain access:

  • Software: Some of the examples listed above are malicious software applications installed or embedded in software, or a product running software. These threats can still be found through their use of space (both physical and memory) and subsequently removed.
  • Hackers/Network Attacks: These are examples where an external threat gains access over the network. These threats usually require some sort of communication channel in order to communicate with the hacker and a remote target; therefore, the communication medium can be interrupted, protected or disconnected.
  • Hardware: These are examples where the actual backdoor, or vulnerability, is actually designed/built into the chip during the design and/or manufacturing of the semiconductor itself. These threats are extremely hard to detect given that they can completely control the environment and hide their logic of a few thousand transistors amongst several other logic gates numbering in the tens-of-millions.

Your comments are always welcome.