I’ve previously written about the risks of small portable computing devices; how more and more data can be stored on them, and then lost or stolen. But there’s another risk: if an attacker can convince you to plug his USB device into your computer, he can take it over.
Plug an iPod or USB stick into a PC running Windows and the device can literally take over the machine and search for confidential documents, copy them back to the iPod or USB’s internal storage, and hide them as “deleted” files. Alternatively, the device can simply plant spyware, or even compromise the operating system. Two features that make this possible are the Windows AutoRun facility and the ability of peripherals to use something called direct memory access (DMA). The first attack vector you can and should plug; the second vector is the result of a design flaw that’s likely to be with us for many years to come.
The article has the details, but basically you can configure a file on your USB device to automatically run when it’s plugged into a computer. That file can, of course, do anything you want it to.
Recently I’ve been seeing more and more written about this attack. The Spring 2006 issue of 2600 Magazine, for example, contains a short article called “iPod Sneakiness” (unfortunately, not on line). The author suggests that you can innocently ask someone at an Internet cafe if you can plug your iPod into his computer to power it up — and then steal his passwords and critical files.
And here’s an article about someone who used this trick in a penetration test:
We figured we would try something different by baiting the same employees that were on high alert. We gathered all the worthless vendor giveaway thumb drives collected over the years and imprinted them with our own special piece of software. I had one of my guys write a Trojan that, when run, would collect passwords, logins and machine-specific information from the user’s computer, and then email the findings back to us.
The next hurdle we had was getting the USB drives in the hands of the credit union’s internal users. I made my way to the credit union at about 6 a.m. to make sure no employees saw us. I then proceeded to scatter the drives in the parking lot, smoking areas, and other areas employees frequented.
Once I seeded the USB drives, I decided to grab some coffee and watch the employees show up for work. Surveillance of the facility was worth the time involved. It was really amusing to watch the reaction of the employees who found a USB drive. You know they plugged them into their computers the minute they got to their desks.
I immediately called my guy that wrote the Trojan and asked if anything was received at his end. Slowly but surely info was being mailed back to him. I would have loved to be on the inside of the building watching as people started plugging the USB drives in, scouring through the planted image files, then unknowingly running our piece of software.
There is a defense. From the first article:
AutoRun is just a bad idea. People putting CD-ROMs or USB drives into their computers usually want to see what’s on the media, not have programs automatically run. Fortunately you can turn AutoRun off. A simple manual approach is to hold down the “Shift” key when a disk or USB storage device is inserted into the computer. A better way is to disable the feature entirely by editing the Windows Registry. There are many instructions for doing this online (just search for “disable autorun”) or you can download and use Microsoft’s TweakUI program, which is part of the Windows XP PowerToys download. With Windows XP you can also disable AutoRun for CDs by right-clicking on the CD drive icon in the Windows explorer, choosing the AutoPlay tab, and then selecting “Take no action” for each kind of disk that’s listed. Unfortunately, disabling AutoPlay for CDs won’t always disable AutoPlay for USB devices, so the registry hack is the safest course of action.
In the 1990s, the Macintosh operating system had this feature, which was removed after a virus made use of it in 1998. Microsoft needs to remove this feature as well.
EDITED TO ADD (6/12): In the penetration test, they didn’t use AutoRun.