Programmer Darren Cauthon learned the hard way that the makers of smart TVs—devices that are connected to the Internet and can run apps—may not be making the smartest decisions when it comes to security.
Over the holidays, a member of the programmer’s family—later reported to be his wife — downloaded an app for watching free movies to the TV. Minutes later, the television showed a notice claiming to be from the FBI, demanding $500. In all other ways, the device was unresponsive. The screenshot appeared to indicate that the smart TV had been infected by a ransomware variant known as Cyber.Police, FLocker, Frantic Locker, or Dogspectus.
“Family member’s tv is bricked by Android malware. #lg won’t disclose factory reset,” Cauthon tweeted. “Avoid these ‘smart tvs’ like the plague.”
The incident underscores the dangers that malware can pose to Internet connected devices. Over the past six months, a variety of malware—the most infamous being Mirai—has targeted Internet of Things (IoT) devices, such as smart TVs. In those cases, the malware took control of the devices and used them in a denial-of-service attack.
However, the ransomware attack did not target the smart TV, but took advantage of its common operating system—a variant of the Android OS—to infect the system. Usually a system reset would clean the malware from the system, but LG did not publish the details of how to reset their devices.
Smart TVs and other connected devices may be difficult to protect against such threats in the future. Security researchers and attackers are already looking for vulnerabilities in the devices, and because many are not updated frequently, a serious vulnerability could hang around for a long time, perhaps the useful life of the device.
“Unfortunately, even though the developer of your TV’s OS might release updates for its software regularly, you’re still reliant on the TV’s manufacturer to issue the updates to your device, which means in the meantime your TV is vulnerable,” Candid Wueest, principal security engineer at Symantec, stated in a blog post.
In 2015, Wueest tested his own smart TV, which also ran a version of the Android TV operating system, to see if he could infect it with ransomware. Unsurprisingly, he could.
In the latest example of the vulnerability of “smart” devices, programmer Cauthon acknowledged that the downloaded app “tried to look reputable,” but he declined to name the program.
Cauthon’s tale mainly focused on his inability to reset the TV because LG did not include the manual reset process in the nearly 130-page manual. Instead, a support person told the programmer to take it to a technical representative, which would likely cost $340 in service fees, the programmer stated on Twitter.
Three days after posting the incident to Twitter and gaining a lot of attention for his plight, Cauthon said that LG contacted him and provided the reset sequence. He thanked the company.