New Electronics Not Always Trustworthy

Sunday, March 15th 2009, 4:18 pm
By: News On 6

By Nicole Wiseman and Kyle Dierking,

TULSA, OK -- When we buy an electronic, perhaps a new digital camera, we expect it to be flawless. After all, it's new and has never been used.

But, are we wrong to assume the product's perfect performance?

"We trust that these commercial, off-the-shelf products are safe, but sometimes, you can't count on that being the case all the time," said David Greer, Executive Director for The University of Tulsa's Institute for Information Security.

Greer says consumers need to know when it comes to electronics, there's always a chance for vulnerabilities. They can be intentional and unintentional.

"A little virus gets put into that software right before they release it and wrap it in the package. So now, everyone who buys that is vulnerable to that virus," said Greer.

Greer says it happens and did recently with a digital picture frame. Greer says 90% of all chips that make up electronic devices are manufactured oversees, electronics we use every day.

"Are we trusting that those components are designed in a secure manner and don't have backdoors or maybe unintentional vulnerabilities built into them that can be exploited later?"

Greer and the iSec team are doing something about this issue. They've been awarded $2.5 million in congressional funds. They'll use some of that money to test products for the government and military, and what they learn will also benefit consumers.

"For example, you have wireless technology, wireless routers, we're all buying them and putting them into our houses. We can certify one of those types of routers for the government maybe or for the private sector and once we go through that process and validate and test it, we can use that same report and that same result and apply it across to consumers," said Greer.

Network and Wi-Fi cards, thumb drives, hard drives, mp3 players, digital cameras, even digital picture frames and cell phones are all susceptible to vulnerabilities.

"All of these devices are perfect mechanisms to transport a virus," said Brady Deetz, a TU student and researcher for iSec.

Deetz says his goal is to help design and build new tools that will evaluate the security of electronics so that others can use those tools to protect themselves.

"You're never going to be able to create code that is completely invulnerable to some exploit. It's impossible, but we can try to optimize it as much as possible," said Deetz.

It's rare you'll have a problem with new electronics, but Greer says it's still possible and while you can't control a product's safety, he says you can control how that technology affects you.

"There's nothing you can do about buying a digital picture frame and plugging it in and having a virus installed on your computer, but by knowing that's possible, you can start installing virus protection programs on your system, firewalls. You can do all these standard security practices as just a good security posture for the consumer," said Greer. "Just be aware of the dangers that are out there and how to use the technology appropriately."

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