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MacBook Batteries Could Be A Computer Security Risk

July 25, 2011

A renowned white-hat hacker who works for security firm Accuvant, Charlie Miller, has discovered a possible security flaw in batteries that are used in several MacBooks, MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs, according to various media reports.

Miller found that Apple laptop microcontroller chips inside the batteries are shipped with default passwords that, once discovered, can be used as a hiding spot for malware as well as a conduit for disabling the battery and even blowing it up.

“These batteries just aren’t designed with the idea that people will mess with them,” Miller told Forbes. “What I’m showing is that it’s possible to use them to do something really bad.”

Apple and other laptop makers use embedded chips in their lithium ion laptop batteries to monitor its power level, stop and start charging and regulate heat.

During the course of his tests, AppleInsider reports, the researcher “bricked” seven batteries, rendering them unusable by rewriting the firmware. Of more concern is the possibility that hackers could use the vulnerability to install difficult to remove malware.

“These batteries just aren’t designed with the idea that people will mess with them,” he said. “What I’m showing is that it’s possible to use them to do something really bad.” According to him, IT few administrators would think to check the battery, providing hackers with an opportunity to hide malicious software on a battery that could repeatedly implant itself on a computer.

Miller plans to share a proposed fix for the potential problem at the Black Hat conference next month. A program called “Caulkgun” would change the battery “firmware’s passwords to a random string, preventing the default password attack he used,” Forbes said.

Miller says he has let Apple know about the problem, but has yet to hear back from the company.

In spite of the battery vulnerability that he uncovered, Miller believes Mac OS X security is better than ever before. According to him, Apple engineers made few security-related changes in the jump from Leopard to Snow Leopard, but they made substantial improvements in Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, which was released on Wednesday.

“Now, they’ve made significant changes and it’s going to be harder to exploit,” he said, as noted by The Register. “It’s a significant improvement, and the best way that I’ve described the level of security in Lion is that it’s Windows 7, plus, plus,” said noted security consultant Dino Dai Zovi.

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