Las Vegas security conferences: five things we learnt in July and August

This summer, Las Vegas played host to a number of cyber security conventions, including BSIDES LV (BSides Las Vegas), DEF Con and Black Hat.

Here are five highlights emerging from these recent events:

Mobile phones more vulnerable than ever

Continuing concerns over mobile security emerged at Bsides LV. Guillaume Ross exposed a vulnerability in the URL protocols used on mobile devices, arguing that the URL scheme which enables users, for example, to call a car dealership directly from Safari in iOS is open to interference. It’s even possible for a phone to be hacked, so that phone calls can be made without the owner being aware.

Counter surveillance tips

For those ever concerned about the prying eyes of the state, there were some homebrew tips on offer at DefCon from Phil Polstra, the associate professor of digital forensics at Bloomberg University.

It’s possible, for instance, to use your mobile phone to detect hidden cameras that use infrared light. If you turn on your mobile phone camera and rotate it around the room, any infrared lights will be indicated by a bright purple colour on your smartphone screen.

Moreover, by tuning your car radio to the AM frequency, you may be able to detect if your car is being bugged; your car radio will emit a loud beep, indicating that a certain type of surveillance device is attached to the vehicle.

Traffic control vulnerabilities

At DefCon, Cesar Cerrudo, CTO of IOActive, said that the many devices which interact with motor vehicles use ‘open’ wireless technology. He demonstrated how he was able to take control of a sensor that regulates traffic light times in both New York City and Washington. Potentially, he could have caused a jam by artificially increasing the red signal times, using an interceptor device he stored in his backpack. He was happy merely to demonstrate the possibility.

Fears for home automation

Meanwhile, in his Black Hat talk, security specialist Jesus Molina exposed the vulnerability of an older communication protocol known as KNX, which is used in some hotels, for instance, to control in-room entertainment. Molina could, if he so wished, have hacked the TVs of all the guests so they were watching the same sports channel as him. KNX is, worryingly, also widely used in home automation systems.

A call for better corporate disclosure

For the corporate attendees, there was an uncompromising message from Black Hat speaker Dan Geer, a senior information security officer. He said that corporate security breaches were now becoming so serious that companies should be forced to disclose incidents that befall them. Writing about the presentation, the Financial Times stated:

“Mr Geer called for ‘a public health system’ for the internet where the security of everyone online is given higher priority than the privacy of attack victims.”

Needless to say, his call was met with a mixed reaction from some corporate delegates.

All in all, if any over-arching theme emerged from this year’s Vegas cyber security binge, it was the growing fear for the security of the rapidly expanding Internet of Things.

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