Why Light bulbs Might be the Next Hacker Target
Written by John Markoff
Credit: Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times][Photo
SAN FRANCISCO — The so-called Internet of Things, its proponents argue, offers many benefits: energy efficiency, technology so convenient it can anticipate what you want, even reduced congestion on the roads.
Now here’s the bad news: Putting a bunch of wirelessly connected devices in one area could prove irresistible to hackers. And it could allow them to spread malicious code through the air, like a flu virus on an airplane.
Researchers report in a paper to be made public on Thursday that they have uncovered a flaw in a wireless technology that is often included in smart home devices like lights, switches, locks, thermostats and many of the components of the much-ballyhooed “smart home” of the future.
The researchers focused on the Philips Hue smart light bulb and found that the wireless flaw could allow hackers to take control of the light bulbs, according to researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science near Tel Aviv and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.
That may not sound like a big deal. But imagine thousands or even hundreds of thousands of internet-connected devices in close proximity. Malware created by hackers could be spread like a pathogen among the devices by compromising just one of them.
And they wouldn’t have to have direct access to the devices to infect them: The researchers were able to spread infection in a network inside a building by driving a car 229 feet away.
Just two weeks ago, hackers briefly denied access to whole chunks of the internet by creating a flood of traffic that overwhelmed the servers of a New Hampshire company called Dyn, which helps manage key components of the internet.
Security experts say they believe the hackers found the horsepower necessary for their attack by taking control of a range of internet-connected devices, but the hackers did not use the method detailed in the report being made public Thursday. One Chinese wireless camera manufacturer said weak passwords on some of its products were partly to blame for the attack.
Though it was not the first time hackers used the Internet of Things to power an attack, the scale of the effort against Dyn was a revelation to people who didn’t realize that having internet-connected things knitted into daily life would come with new risks.
“Even the best internet defense technologies would not stop such an attack,” said Adi Shamir, a widely respected cryptographer who helped pioneer modern encryption methods and is one of the authors of the report.
The new risk comes from a little-known radio protocol called ZigBee. Created in the 1990s, ZigBee is a wireless standard widely used in home consumer devices. While it is supposed to be secure, it hasn’t been held up to the scrutiny of other security methods used around the internet.
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