LAS VEGAS—The security of a number of devices used by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is being called into question by a researcher at the Black Hat USA conference here. Billy Rios, director of Vulnerability Research at Qualys, looked at three different devices used by the TSA in airports in the United States and found security issues in all of them.
In an interview with eWEEK, Rios emphasized that all of the issues he found have been responsibly disclosed via ICS-CERT to help minimize any risk to travelers.
One of the devices that Rios examined is an X-ray scanner used in airports to screen passengers’ carry-on luggage. Rios was able to identify a number of security vulnerabilities in the software, including an authentication bypass issue.
“Even if you don’t know the right password, you can still gain access to the device,” he said. “Once you gain access to the device, you’ll be able to get any other user’s password.”
Rios also examined the TSA’s Kronos 4500 employee time-tracking system, which is used by TSA employees to check in and out of work at airports in the United States. One of the issues he found with the time-tracking system has to do with place of manufacture. Rios noted that the TSA has actually canceled procurement of an X-ray machine because it included a foreign-made part—a Chinese-made light bulb.
With the time tracker unit, Rios opened the device and found that the mainboard is made in China. Adding further insult to injury, on the time tracker software Rios found two different backdoor passwords.
“Backdoor passwords are pretty common in embedded devices,” Rios said. “Manufacturers will hard-code the passwords for technical service and support.”
The problem with that scenario is that if anyone else discovers the password, they also can gain access. From a user perspective, since the password is hard-coded into the software, it’s not something that can be easily changed.
Airport Security Not Secure Enough, Researcher Reveals at Black Hat
Going a step further, Rios did a preliminary check to see if any of the time tracker units are Internet-facing. He found some 6,000 units on the Internet, with one of them belonging to San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Rios said that he worked with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to get the SFO device taken off the Internet.
“An attacker with the hard-coded password could have simply logged into the device, then pivoted to other devices on the network the time tracker is connected with,” Rios said. “That most likely could have been an airport control system, which would not be good.”
The third TSA device analyzed by Rios is the Itemiser, technology used in airports to swab a passenger or their luggage to identify if narcotics or hazardous materials are present.
Rios found a number of service technician passwords on the Itemiser software that were also hard-coded.
“With the passwords, you can take over the configuration of the device,” he said. “Since this device is supposed to detect narcotics and explosives, you could potentially make it not detect those things.”
The larger message that Rios wants to get across is not the fact that he found vulnerabilities, but rather that perhaps the TSA doesn’t know everything it should about the software it is running.
“Given that these devices run in a security-sensitive area, they should know whether they have some obvious flaws,” he said.
Rather than just complain about the TSA’s software, Rios wants to help the organization and others like it make sure they are procuring the most secure software possible. To that end, he is releasing a framework to help organizations with the process of secure device acquisition. One of the key recommendations in the framework is making sure devices don’t have hard-coded technician passwords in them.
“A lot of people forget that embedded devices are still computers,” Rios said. “So you cannot overlook the cyber-security aspect for those devices.”
Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.