By now it has been pretty well established that the security and privacy of most "internet of things" devices is decidedly half-assed. Companies are so eager to cash in on the IOT craze, nobody wants to take responsibility for their decision to forget basic security and privacy standards. As a result, we've now got millions of new attack vectors being introduced daily, including easily-hacked "smart" kettles, door locks, refrigerators, power outlets, Barbie dolls, and more. Security experts have warned the check for this dysfunction is coming due, and it could be disastrous.
Smart televisions have long been part of this conversation, where security standards and privacy have also taken a back seat to blind gee whizzery. Numerous set vendors have already been caught hoovering up private conversations or transmitting private user data unencrypted to the cloud. One study last year surmised that around 90% of smart televisions can be hacked remotely, something intelligence agencies, private contractors and other hackers are clearly eager to take full advantage of.
Consumer Reports this week released a study suggesting that things aren't really improving. The outfit, which is working to expand inclusion of privacy and security in product reviews, studied numerous streaming devices and smart TVs from numerous vendors. What they found is more of the same: companies that don't clearly disclose what consumer data is being collected and sold, aren't adequately encrypting the data they collect, and still don't seem to care that their devices are filled with security holes leaving their customers open to attack.
The company was quick to highlight Roku's many smart TVs and streaming devices, and the company's failure to address an unsecured API vulnerability that could allow an attacker access to smart televisions operating on your home network. This is one of several problems that has been bouncing around since at least 2015, notes the report:
"The problem we found involved the application programming interface, or API, the program that lets developers make their own products work with the Roku platform. “Roku devices have a totally unsecured remote control API enabled by default,” says Eason Goodale, Disconnect’s lead engineer. “This means that even extremely unsophisticated hackers can take control of Rokus. It’s less of a locked door and more of a see-through curtain next to a neon ‘We’re open!’ sign."
To become a victim of a real-world attack, a TV user would need to be using a phone or laptop running on the same WiFi network as the television, and then visit a site or download a mobile app with malicious code. That could happen, for instance, if they were tricked into clicking on a link in a phishing email or if they visited a site containing an advertisement with the code embedded."
Roku was quick to issue a blog post stating that Consumer Reports had engaged in the "mischaracterization of a feature," and told its customers not to worry about it:
"Consumer Reports issued a report saying that Roku TVs and players are vulnerable to hacking. This is a mischaracterization of a feature. It is unfortunate that the feature was reported in this way. We want to assure our customers that there is no security risk.
Roku enables third-party developers to create remote control applications that consumers can use to control their Roku products. This is achieved through the use of an open interface that Roku designed and published. There is no security risk to our customers’ accounts or the Roku platform with the use of this API. In addition, consumers can turn off this feature on their Roku player or Roku TV by going to Settings>System>Advanced System Settings>External Control>Disabled."
Roku fails to mention that doing so disables the ability for consumers to control the device with Roku's own app, taking away valuable functionality from the end user (something Consumer Reports mentions in its write up). And Roku doesn't even address the other complaints in the report, including concerns that streaming hardware and TV companies aren't making data collection and third-party sales clear, aren't clearly showcasing their privacy policies, and often don't let users opt out of such collection without losing functionality (much like the broadband ISPs and numerous services and apps these devices are connected to).
Roku's response highlights the SOP approach (somebody else's problem) inherent in the IOT. As experts like Bruce Schneier have repeatedly noted, the tech industry is caught in a cycle of security dysfunction where nobody in the chain has any real motivation to actually fix the problem:
"The market can't fix this because neither the buyer nor the seller cares. Think of all the CCTV cameras and DVRs used in the attack against Brian Krebs. The owners of those devices don't care. Their devices were cheap to buy, they still work, and they don't even know Brian. The sellers of those devices don't care: they're now selling newer and better models, and the original buyers only cared about price and features. There is no market solution because the insecurity is what economists call an externality: it's an effect of the purchasing decision that affects other people. Think of it kind of like invisible pollution."
Schneier has repeatedly warned that we need cooperative engagement between governments, companies, experts and the public to craft over-arching standards and policies. The alternative isn't just a few hacks and embarrassing PR gaffes now and again. The influx of millions of poorly secured internet-connected devices (many of which are being automatically integrated into historically-nasty botnets) is a massive dumpster fire with the potential for genuine human casualties. It's easy to downplay these kinds of reports as just "a few minor problems with a television set," but that ignores the massive scope of the problem and the chain of security and privacy apathy that has created it.