Robot Character Analysis Reveals Trust Issues

By on Aug 05, 2020

Retired Marine fighter pilot and Top Gun instructor Dave Berke said “Every single thing you do in your life, every decision you make, is an OODA Loop.” OODA Loop? Observe–Orient–Decide–Act, the “OODA Loop” was originally developed by United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd and outlines that fundamentally all actions are first based on observations.  If you can’t first observe you are at a serious disadvantage. This can be applied at every scale from planning a large-scale military invasion, to changing lanes on a highway or even down to the split-second decision of picking up a glass of water off a table. But it all starts with observation.

If observation or information about what’s around us is so important, then it’s no surprise that tools and devices that can provide us information not only increase our success but also make us feel more comfortable. The personal robot called temi, is such a device. With 1,000 new devices being created a month, temi can help us see a loved one in the hospital through teleconferencing, escort us to the ballroom in the hotel we are staying at or help a doctor virtually visit with a patient. In fact, across Israel, temi was recently selected as the de facto robotics platform for hospital telepresence. Temi can allow us to observe and interact remotely; all while influencing what we decide to do next with the information we have learned.

But what are the risks associated with tools that help provide greater information into our OODA Loop? How could someone with malicious intent use tools like temi to improve their OODA Loop, furthering their ability to cause harm? Could someone control temi without the owner’s permission? What if someone could turn on the camera and microphone and see the robot’s surroundings while listening to your medical diagnosis or treatment plan? What if someone could “check in on your kids” and map out your house without your permission? These are the type of questions that McAfee Advanced Threat Research (ATR) aims to answer when we see a product like temi. We look at technologies and the wealth of information they provide through the lens of an attacker; with the goal of making your experience a safer one. So, it is no surprise that our team decided to take a deeper look into temi when it was first released.

On day one, like a kid during Christmas, we unboxed our shiny new temi with a sense of joy and excitement. Like your average user, we set it up following the included directions, had it follow us around dressed up as a ghost for Halloween, marked key locations, made video calls and were amazed at just how cool this robot was! Maybe a little less like your average user, we also captured all the network traffic while temi showed off and did a firmware update. We also looked at what open network ports temi exposed, decompiled the Android application, activated android debugger (adb) and installed a ssh server, just to be safe.  Basically, we treated temi like your child’s first date in high school – we did a background check and used proper intimidation techniques before we allowed temi to go on a date.

Over the next several months, we really dug into what we learned from our “first date” with temi. What we discovered, not unlike some of my first high school dates, is temi had some trust issues. This is not a good report card considering some of temi’s primary functions. For the ability to make video calls and to remotely control temi securely, it’s important to keep information used to connect to a call secret and secured. Since temi had some flaws doing so, the team turned its attention to the question of whether these “character flaws” could be exploited.

It turned out with only a few modifications to the original temi Android application, we could intercept phone calls intended for another user. With a few more modifications, temi began to trust us (the attacker) to navigate it around and activate the camera and microphone. Additionally, we discovered the only knowledge an attacker would need to know about the victim is their phone number. Yes, the same number you can’t figure out how tele-markers got ahold of was the information a malicious actor would need to access your temi completely remotely without your knowledge or consent.

For an attacker, temi’s security flaws allows them to feed vital information into their OODA Loop. Consider a hospital that keeps a very tight and well-run information security program. From the outside they are almost impossible to steal information from. The vulnerabilities discovered in temi now provide them a way to gather information about the internal operations of the business without needing to crack the well implemented business network or physical security. With the phone number of anyone who has called a temi recently, an attacker could observe what room number and condition a hospitalized member of congress is in. Temi could watch the security guard type in the building alarm code. Temi could observe the dog pictures on the nurse’s desk labeled with its cute name and birthday, that just happens to also be part of their password. This information can be invaluable to an attacker’s OODA loop and the potentially malicious decisions they make. Temi was a challenging target to compromise, but the nature of the flaws discovered highlight the importance of this research and the value of vendors to provide fast and effective mitigations, as was the case here.

For those who enjoy punishing themselves with an excessive amount of technical detail of these vulnerabilities, we have a special treat for you in our highly technical paper on this research here. This dives into the vulnerability discovery and exploitation process from start to finish in intricate detail.

In keeping with our responsible disclosure program, we reached out to temi as soon as we confirmed that the vulnerabilities we discovered were exploitable. Temi was very receptive, grateful, and had a strong desire to improve the security of temi. Over the next several weeks, we worked closely with their team to develop a more robust solution for temi. For each vulnerability, we provided temi with two mitigations strategies; a band aid and a cure. It is common for vendors to only implement the band aid or quick fix solution. To their credit, temi took on the challenge of implementing the more effective solution or the cure for all findings. Once in place, we were able to test and confirm that all the vulnerabilities reported were effectively mitigated. It is always exciting to see the positive impact security research can have when responsible disclosure is valued by vendor and researchers alike. The following demo video is a light-hearted way to show the true possible impact of the remote accessibility component of this research, had these been found by adversaries instead of responsibly disclosed by McAfee ATR and fixed by temi.

So, what is the larger lesson here? I would venture to guess that I wouldn’t be the first to conclude that Colonel John Boyd was a smart man and his theory of the OODA Loop is not only effective but also strengthens a process – in this case, vulnerability mitigation. For our research, this applies directly to a personal robot assistant which is currently being used worldwide, across a wide range of industries, and currently producing nearly 1,000 new units a month. McAfee’s ATR team observed a new impactful technology emerging into the market. Due to our previous experiences and technical expertise we were well oriented in a position where we decided to take further action and investigate. Temi observed the value in collaboration, oriented themselves in a position where they could decide to take action in making a tool used for observation a more secure product.

About the Author

Douglas McKee

Douglas McKee is a Principal Engineer and Senior Security Researcher for the McAfee Advanced Threat Research team, focused on finding new vulnerabilities in both software and hardware. Douglas has an extensive background in penetration testing, reverse engineering, malware analysis and forensics and throughout his career has provided software exploitation training to many audiences, including law ...

Read more posts from Douglas McKee

Categories: McAfee Labs

Subscribe to McAfee Securing Tomorrow Blogs