Malicious Automatic Updates

The early days of the Internet demonstrated both the importance and lack of computer security. Versions of Windows before XP had no security to speak off. But even by the time Windows XP was released, your could still easily compromise your entire system by visiting a malicious site (while this is still a possibility today, it was a guarantee back then). It was during the reign of Windows XP when Microsoft started taking security more seriously. Windows XP Service Pack 2 included a number of security improvements to the operating system. However, this didn’t solve the problem of woeful computer security because even the best security improvements are worthless if nobody actually installs them.

Most users won’t manually check for software updates. Even if the system automatically checks for updates and notifies users when they’re available, those users often still won’t install those updates. This behavior lead to the rise of automatic updates.

In regards to security, automatic updates are good. But like all good things, automatic updates are also abused by malicious actors. Nowhere is this more prominent than with smart appliances. Vizio recently released an update for some of their smart televisions. The update included a new “feature” that spies on what you’re watching and displays tailored ads over that content:

The Vizio TV that you bought with hard-earned cash has a new feature; Jump Ads. Vizio will first identify what is on your screen and then place interactive banner ads over live TV programs.

[…]

It is based on Vizio’s in-house technology from subsidiary company Inscape that uses automatic content recognition (ACR) to identify what is on your screen at any given moment. If the system detects a specific show on live TV it can then show ads in real-time.

Vizio isn’t unique in this behavior. Many device manufacturers use automatic updates to push out bullshit “features.” This strategy is especially insidious because the malicious behavior isn’t present when the device is purchased and, oftentimes, the buyer has no method to stop the updates from being installed. Many smart devices demand an active Internet connection before they’ll provide any functionality, even offline functionality. Some smart devices when not given Internet access will scan for open Wi-Fi networks and automatically connect to any one they find (which is a notable security problem). And as the price of machine to machine cellular access continues to drop, more manufacturers are going to cut out the local network requirement and setup their smart devices to automatically connect to any available cellular network.

This pisses me off for a number of reasons. The biggest reason is that the functionality of the device is being significantly altered after purchase. S consumer may buy a specific device for a reason that ceases to exists after an automatic update is pushed out by the manufacturer. The second biggest reason this behavior pisses me off is because it taints the idea of automatic updates in the eyes of consumers. Automatic updates are an important component in consumer computer security, but consumers will shy away from them if they are continually used to provide a negative experience. Hence this behavior is a detriment to consumer computer security.

As an aside, this behavior illustrates another important fact that I’ve ranted about numerous times: you don’t own your smart devices. When you buy a smart device, you’re paying money to grant a manufacturer the privilege to dictate how you will use that device. If the manufacturer decides that you need to view ads on the screen of your smart oven in order to use it, there is nothing you as an end consumer can do (if you’re sufficiently technical you might be able to work around it, but then you’re just paying money to suffer the headache of fighting your own device).

Once again I encourage everybody reading this to give serious consideration to the dwindling number of dumb devices. Even if a smart device offers features that are appealing to your use case, you have to remember that the manufacturer can take those features away at any time without giving you any prior notice. Moreover, they can also add features you don’t want at any time without any notice (such as spyware on your television).

2 thoughts on “Malicious Automatic Updates”

  1. Good points. I worry about my next TV purchase. Are any “non-smart” TV’s even sold nowadays? I have a Roku so don’t need the TV itself to connect to a wireless network, but (as you say), will it even function? Clearly I’ll have to do some careful research before plunking down any money.

    1. There are a few dumb TVs still on the market, but they’re far and few between. I’ve considered getting a larger computer monitor when I need to replace my dumb TV.

      Computer monitors are usually more expensive, but they also don’t include much for smarts.

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