Yesterday there was widespread reportage of one of those periodic stories that make media types drool; and make security experts cringe in despair.
However, this ‘summer slow day news story’ was so widely (mis)reported, that it does bear commenting on. The story in question was titled (by the BBC) as “First Human Infected with Computer Virus“. This of course conjures up the idea of a person getting sick, by means of malicious computer code (a claim that is, and will remain for a significant amount of time, well within the realm of science fiction).
What actually happened is much more mundane. It appears that the ‘researcher’ placed a piece of replicating code onto an RFID chip, and used that to infect the reader control system which then (at least in theory) could then pass the code back to other similar RFID devices. So far, so boring. We know that it is possible to have storage devices contain code (malicious or not) and pass that code between themselves via other systems. The difference in this case is that the researcher then injected the ‘infected’ (rather bizzarely he refers to this as ‘corrupted’ making me doubt that it was even a virus) chip into his hand, and claimed that this made him infected.
The news stories all got caught up with the fact that this gave him special Jedi powers enabling him to open doors with a simple wave of his hands (ok, maybe they didn’t exactly say that, but hand waving was involved), or…horror of all horrors….activate his mobile phone. Surely a deadly device if one had ever been made. So; we already know that RFID chips can open doors (after all, that’s a valid use for many of them) and they can carry code. The ONLY difference is that this ‘researcher’ inserted the chip into his flesh. To claim that this makes him ‘infected by a computer virus’ is a bit like saying that if I dropped the same chip into a cup of coffee, a steaming fresh cow pat, or even a mutant zombie flesh eating chicken from Mars, those would also be ‘infected’.
As Graham Cluley pointed out, the only interest that this story might have generated otherwise would be in a security research into vulnerabilities of RFID readers. You need a vulnerable reader to get affected by the code, and then you need to be able to read the other RFID tags/chips with that reader to ‘infect’ them. There’s a valid point in that RFID exploits could be used to compromise security and or privacy – but that’s not new knowledge, we’ve known that for many years.
As Chris Boyd (@paperghost on Twitter) nicely summed up “In conclusion then, “man infected with computer virus” is basically “device for opening doors works as intended”.”
AVIEN CEO / CTO K7 Computing