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The Sins of the Flash

21 October 2011

Recent news stories (based on research by Stanford student Feross Aboukhadijeh) state that an Adobe bug made it possible for remote sites to turn on a viewer's camera and microphone. That sounds bad enough, but that's not the really disturbing part. Consider this text from the Register article:

Adobe said on Thursday it was planning to fix the vulnerability, which stems from flaws in the Flash Player Settings Manager. The panel, which is used to designate which sites may access feeds from an enduser's camera and mic, is delivered in the SWF format used by Flash.

...

Because the settings manager is hosted on Adobe servers, engineers were able to close the hole without updating enduser software, company spokeswoman Wiebke Lips said.

That's right — code on a remote computer somewhere decides whether or not random web sites can spy on you. If someone changes that code, accidentally or deliberately, your own computer has just been turned into a bug, without any need for them to attack your machine.

From a technical perspective, it's simply wrong for a design to outsource a critical access control decision to a third party. My computer should decide what sites can turn on my camera and microphone, not one of Adobe's servers.

The policy side is even worse. What if the FBI wanted to bug you? Could they get a court order compelling Adobe to make an access control decision that would turn on your microphone? I don't know of any legal rulings on this point directly, but there are some analogs. In The Company v. U.S., 349 F.3d 1132 (Nov. 2003), the 9th Circuit considered a case with certain similarities. Some cars are equipped with built-in cell phones intended for remote assistance. OnStar is the best-known such system; in this case, analysis of court records suggests that ATX Technologies was involved. Briefly, the FBI got a court order requiring "The Company" to turn on the mike in a suspect's car. The Court of Appeals quashed that order, but only because given the way that particular system was designed, turning it into a bug disabled its other functionality. That, the Court felt, conflicted with the wording of the wiretap statute which required a "minimum of interference" with the service. If the service had been designed differently, the order would have stood. By analogy, if a Flash-tap doesn't interfere with a user's ability to have normal Flash-based voice and video interactions with a web site, such a court order would be legal.

No wonder the NSA's Mac OS X Security Configuration guide says to disable the camera and microphone functions, by physically removing the devices if necessary.

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