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EMF Studies

06 November 2016

Wireless Lightbulb Hack Could Plunge Households into Darkness

A Philips Hue lightbulb.  Credit: Philips
Wireless lightbulb hack could plunge households into darkness
by James Titcomb, The Telegraph, 
4 November 2016

Households using internet-connected lightbulbs could be left in the dark by cyber attacks after researchers showed how the bulbs could be hacked and remotely switched on and off.

The hackers showed how they were able to control the lighting in Philips Hue lightbulbs in an office building by flying a drone up to it and using a “worm” that spread wirelessly.

The researchers said such an attack could be used to bring an entire section of “smart” street lights offline, turning public roads dark, or be used to attack a city’s electricity grid.

Philips Hue is the world’s leading seller of internet-connected lightbulbs, which can be dimmed or change colour via a smartphone app. The company said it had fixed the specific flaw which allowed researchers to control the lights.

The researchers, from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science and Dalhousie University in Canada, were able to exploit a flaw in ZigBee, a wireless protocol used in many internet of things devices, to exploit a vulnerability in the technology used to control the lights.

Using this they were able to fly a drone up to an office block in Israel and take control of the connected lightbulbs, flashing them on and off.

“An attacker can use the worm for a city-wide bricking attack. The malicious firmware can disable additional firmware downloads, and thus any effect caused by the worm (blackout or constant flickering, for example) will be permanent,” the researchers said. “There is no other method of reprogramming these devices without full disassemble, which is not feasible.”

They said that the growing popularity of such lights could mean the computer worm spreading across a city. “The attack can start by plugging in a single infected bulb anywhere in the city, and then catastrophically spread everywhere within minutes, enabling the attacker to turn all the city lights on or off, permanently brick them, or exploit them in a massive [distributed denial of service] attack.”

There are growing fears that internet-of-things devices are being used to carry out DDoS attacks, in which a vast number of online gadgets are exploited to flood a target with traffic, knocking it online.

Mirai, a so-called botnet that uses IoT devices to mount DDoS attacks, was used in a cyber attack that brought many popular websites offline last month, and to take down Liberia’s internet on Thursday.

FAQ | The Mirai Botnet

What is Mirai?
Mirai is malware that targets devices on the so-called “Internet of Things” – primarily security cameras, but other examples include routers, DVRs and robotic vacuum cleaners

What does it do?
It takes over these devices and connects them as a “botnet”, that is a network under the control of one user without the owners’ knowledge

What are botnets for?
Currently, news is being made by botnets launching massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against websites, networks and, in the case of Liberia, entire countries. Tens of thousands of compromised devices flood the target with overwhelming amounts of data, rendering it unable to function

Botnets are also used to distribute spam, routing mail through other people’s web addresses so that ISPs can’t trace and block the original spammer

Who is behind the Mirai botnet?
It’s hard to say. Botnet owners often rent them out to other hackers, known as a “booter service”. Additionally, the Mirai source code has recently been made public, so could be used by more than one person or group

Security expert Brian Krebs believes Mirai is closely linked to a previous attack-for-hire service called vDOS

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