Let’s face it, 2020 was a terrible year. The Coronavirus has killed almost two million people globally and caused trillions of dollars in economic disruption. Wildfires, floods and hurricanes have ravaged the United States, central America, Australia and parts of Asia.

But trying times have a way of peeling back the curtains and seeing our world with new eyes. COVID messed up our lives, and focused our attention on what really matters.

Maybe that’s why this very bad year has led to some really good conversations and insights here on The Security Ledger on topics ranging from election security, to security supply chains and the security risks of machine learning.

The Security Risks of Machine Learning

To start off, I pulled a March interview from Episode 180 that i did with security luminary Gary McGraw, the noted entrepreneur, author and now co-founder of the Berryville Institute of Machine Learning.

To wrap up 2020, I went back through 35 episodes that aired this year and selected four interviews that stuck out and, in my mind, captured the 2020 zeitgeist, as we delved into issues as diverse as the security implications of machine learning to the cyber threats to election systems and connected vehicles. We’re excerpting those conversations now in a special end of year edition of the podcast. We hope you enjoy it.

Taking Hardware Off Label to Save Lives

As winter turned to spring this year, the COVID virus morphed from something happening “over there” to a force that was upending life here at home. As ICUs in places like New York City rapidly filled, the U.S. faced shortage of respirators for critically ill patients. As they often do: the hacking community rose to the challenge. In our second segment, I pulled an interview from Episode 182 with Trammell Hudson of Lower Layer Labs. In this conversation, Trammell talks to us about Project Airbreak, his work to jailbreak a CPAP machines and how an NSA hacking tool helped make this inexpensive equipment usable as a makeshift respirator.

Report: Hacking Risk for Connected Vehicles Shows Significant Decline

COVID Spotlights Zoom’s Security Woes

One of the big cyber security themes of 2020 was of the security implications of changes forced by the COVID virus. Chief among them: the rapid shift to remote work and the embrace of technologies, such as Zoom that enabled remote work and remote meetings. For our third segment, I returned to Episode 183 and my interview with security researcher Patrick Wardle, a Principle Security Researcher at the firm JAMF. In April, he made headlines for disclosing a zero day vulnerability in the Zoom client – one that could have been used by an attacker to escalate their privileges on a compromised machines. That earned him a conversation with Zoom’s CEO that took place – to Wardle’s dismay – via Zoom.

Securing Connected Vehicles

Finally, while COVID and the ripple effects of the pandemic dominated the news in 2020, it isn’t as it was the only news. In the shadows of the pandemic, other critical issues continued to bubble. One of them is the increasing tensions about the power held by large companies and technology firms. In our final segment, I’m returning to my conversation with Assaf Harel of Karamba Security in Episode 193. Harel is one of the world’s top experts in the security of connected vehicles. In this conversation, Assaf and I talk about the state of vehicle cyber security: what the biggest cyber risks are to connected cars. We also go deep on the right to repair -and how industries like automobiles can balance consumer rights with security and privacy concerns.


As always,  you can check our full conversation in our latest Security Ledger podcast at Blubrry. You can also listen to it on iTunes and check us out on SoundCloudStitcherRadio Public and more. Also: if you enjoy this podcast, consider signing up to receive it in your email. Just point your web browser to securityledger.com/subscribe to get notified whenever a new podcast is posted. 

The acting head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the agency was assessing the cyber risk of smart TVs sold by the Chinese electronics giant TCL, following reports last month in The Security Ledger and elsewhere that the devices may give the company “back door” access to deployed sets.

Speaking at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said that DHS is “reviewing entities such as the Chinese manufacturer TCL.”

“This year it was discovered that TCL incorporated backdoors into all of its TV sets exposing users to cyber breaches and data exfiltration. TCL also receives CCP state support to compete in the global electronics market, which has propelled it to the third largest television manufacturer in the world,” Wolf said, according to a version of prepared remarks published by DHS. His talk was entitled “Homeland Security and the China Challenge.”

As reported by The Security Ledger last month, independent researchers John Jackson, (@johnjhacking) -an application security engineer for Shutter Stock – and a researcher using the handle Sick Codes (@sickcodes) identified and described two serious software security holes affecting TCL brand television sets. The first, CVE-2020-27403, would allow an unprivileged remote attacker on the adjacent network to download most system files from the TV set up to and including images, personal data and security tokens for connected applications. The flaw could lead to serious critical information disclosure, the researchers warned.

Episode 197: The Russia Hack Is A 5 Alarm Fire | Also: Shoppers Beware!

The second vulnerability, CVE-2020-28055, would have allowed a local unprivileged attacker to read from- and write to critical vendor resource directories within the TV’s Android file system, including the vendor upgrades folder.

Both flaws affect TCL Android Smart TV series V8-R851T02-LF1 V295 and below and V8-T658T01-LF1 V373 and below, according to the official CVE reports. In an interview with The Security Ledger, the researcher Sick Codes said that a TCL TV set he was monitoring was patched for the CVE-2020-27403 vulnerability without any notice from the company and no visible notification on the device itself.

In a statement to The Security Ledger, TCL disputed that account. By TCL’s account, the patched vulnerability was linked to a feature called “Magic Connect” and an Android APK by the name of T-Cast, which allows users to “stream user content from a mobile device.” T-Cast was never installed on televisions distributed in the USA or Canada, TCL said. For TCL smart TV sets outside of North America that did contain T-Cast, the APK was “updated to resolve this issue,” the company said. That application update may explain why the TCL TV set studied by the researchers suddenly stopped exhibiting the vulnerability.

DHS announces New Cybersecurity Strategy

While TCL denied having a back door into its smart TVs, the company did acknowledge the existence of remote “maintenance” features that could give its employees or others control over deployed television sets, including onboard cameras and microphones. Owners must authorize the company to access cameras and microphones, however, according to a company statement.

The company did not address in its public statements the question of whether prior notification of the update was given to TCL owners or whether TV set owners were given the option to approve the update before it was installed.

Sick Codes, in a phone interview with The Security Ledger, said the company’s ability to push and update code to its deployed sets without owner approval amounted to a back door that could give TCL access to audio and video streams from deployed sets, regardless of the wishes of owners.

“They can update the application and make authorization happen through that. They have full control,” he said.

Such concerns obviously raised alarms within the Department of Homeland Security as well, which has taken steps to ban technology from other Chinese firms from use on federal networks.

In his address on Monday, Acting Secretary Wolf said the warning about TCL will be part of a a broader “business advisory” cautioning against using data services and equipment from firms linked to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

This advisory will highlight “numerous examples of the PRC government leveraging PRC institutions like businesses, organizations, and citizens to covertly access and obtain the sensitive data of businesses to advance its economic and national security goals,” Wolf said.

“DHS flags instances where Chinese companies illicitly collect data on American consumers or steal intellectual property. CCP-aligned firms rake in tremendous profits as a result,” he said.

The statement is part of escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing. On Friday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced export controls on 77 Chinese companies including the country’s biggest chipmaker, SMIC, and drone maker DJI that restrict those firms’ access to US technology. The order cites those firms alleged ties to China’s military.

TCL did not respond to an email request for comment prior to publication of this story. We will update this story as more information becomes available.


Editor’s note: this story was updated to add reference to John Jackson, who helped discover the TCL vulnerabilities. – PFR 12/22/2020

Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consumers across the U.S. spent the weekend snapping up deals on home electronics like smart TVs, game consoles and appliances. Total season-to date holiday spending, including Cyber Monday, is over the $100 billion threshold according to data from Adobe. 

Lots of factors drive consumer decisions to buy one product over another: price and features chief among them. But what about cyber security? Unlike, say, the automobile marketplace, concerns about safety and security are not top of mind when consumers step into a Best Buy or Wal Mart looking for a new flat screen TV. And ratings systems for cyber security, from organizations like UL and Consumer Reports, are in their infancy and not widely used.

Episode 170: Cyber Monday is for Hackers

found to have numerous, serious security flaws that could have left it open to remote access and data theft – all without need of a login or password. And TCL acknowledged to Security Ledger that access to on-board cameras and microphones is available to company support personnel, though only with the permission of the owner, according to a company statement.  

This isn’t a new occurrence. Consumer Reports warned in 2018 about vulnerabilities in smart TVs by Samsung, TCL and Roku that used Roku’s smart TV platform.

Expert: Patch Bluekeep Now or Face WannaCry Scenario

But concerns about the cyber security of smart home electronics go way beyond TVs. As our guest this week, Yossi Appleboum of the firm Sepio Systems tells us, software and hardware supply chains are rife with vulnerable – if not compromised components. And companies, like consumers, often have no idea whether a product they’ve deployed might be secretly spying on them, or channeling sensitive data to an unknown party or country. 

While many organizations think the notion of keyboards, monitors and other hardware “spying” on them as the stuff of “James Bond” movies, Appleboum says that the threat is real – and much more common that either companies or consumers are aware.

Podcast Episode 128: Do Security and Privacy have a Booth at CES?

Appleboum’s firm, Sepio Systems, provides visibility, policy enforcement and “rogue” device mitigation capabilities, to organizations concerned about the risks posed by hardware assets.

In this conversation, Yossi and talk about the supply chain security risk and how concerned consumers should be about the security of electronic devices being pushed on them this holiday season. 


As always,  you can check our full conversation in our latest Security Ledger podcast at Blubrry. You can also listen to it on iTunes and check us out on SoundCloudStitcherRadio Public and more. Also: if you enjoy this podcast, consider signing up to receive it in your email. Just point your web browser to securityledger.com/subscribe to get notified whenever a new podcast is posted.