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Smart Light Bulb Worm Hops from Lamp to Lamp

That connected light bulb you just installed could flip the switch, as it were, on a hacker’s ability to take over your smart home.

Using the Philips Hue smart light bulb as a platform, researchers from Dalhousie University in Canada and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel identified a flaw that could potentially give hackers control over not just the lights themselves, but also connected switches, locks and thermostats on the same home network.

The researchers developed a computer worm that could be easily spread to other devices, jumping directly from one lamp directly to another using the built-in ZigBee short-range wireless connectivity.

They managed to take over lamps in two different attack scenarios. In the first, conducted at the Weizmann Institute, the researchers did a drive-by hack using a vehicle, and found they were able to manipulate the lights from up to 70 meters away.

In the second, the target was an office building in the city of Be’er Sheva in Israel, which hosts several well-known security companies and also the Israeli Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). Several Philips Hue lights were installed on one floor of the building, and an attack kit was installed on a drone. As the drone got closer to building, lights were able to be manipulated to spell out "S.O.S." in Morse code.

There are further implications, of course. Once hackers have control of the lights, they can also pivot within the home (or office) network to attack other unsecured endpoints. And, the compromised devices could be used to jam wireless networks, attack the electrical grid or steal information.

Dalhousie researcher Colin O’Flynn, a PhD student in Dal’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering, kicked off the study during his research on re-purposing low-cost Phillips Hue bulbs by re-programming them with new code.

He noted that the lateral device connections are in and of themselves of interest.

“Hopefully we'll start to take security of all 'connected' devices seriously, and not just those connected to the internet,” says O’Flynn. “A big part of our research was showing how such a worm could spread between the light-bulbs themselves wirelessly, independent of any internet or network connection.”

Other researchers added that the study is just further proof of the widening scope of the internet of things (IoT) attack vector.

“When it comes to internet-connected devices, there are three primary attack cases: Using IoT devices to attack; attacking IoT devices themselves; leveraging IoT devices to leak sensitive information,” said Javvad Malik, security advocate at AlienVault, via email. “The Mirai botnet attack that occurred in October was a prime example of No. 1. This research on the lightbulb worm is a prime example of attack case No. 2, whereby the devices themselves (the bulbs) are the target. In both cases, the viability and the impact of such attacks should not be underestimated. IoT devices are typically woefully inadequate to defend against direct attacks, and few companies actively monitor IoT device status or traffic. While there are many benefits to IoT devices, they need to be recognized as valuable assets, and the right level of security needs to be built around them.”

Photo © ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.com

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