In this episode of the podcast (#200), sponsored by Digicert: John Jackson, founder of the group Sakura Samurai talks to us about his quest to make hacking groups cool again. Also: we talk with Avesta Hojjati of the firm Digicert about the challenge of managing a growing population of digital certificates and how  automation may be an answer.


Life for independent security researchers has changed a lot in the last 30 years. The modern information security industry grew out of pioneering work by groups like Boston-based L0pht Heavy Industries and the Cult of the Dead Cow, which began in Lubbock, Texas.

After operating for years in the shadows of the software industry and in legal limbo, by the turn of the millennium hackers were coming out of the shadows. And by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, they were free to pursue full fledged careers as bug hunters, with some earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year through bug bounty programs that have proliferated in the last decade.

Despite that, a stigma still hangs over “hacking” in the mind of the public, law enforcement and policy makers. And, despite the growth of bug bounty programs, red teaming and other “hacking for hire” activities, plenty of blurry lines still separate legal security research from illegal hacking. 

Hacks Both Daring…and Legal

Still, the need for innovative and ethical security work in the public interest has never been greater. The Solar Winds hack exposed the ways in which even sophisticated firms like Microsoft and Google are vulnerable to compromised software supply chain attacks. Consider also the tsunami of “smart” Internet connected devices like cameras, television sets and appliances are working their way into homes and workplaces by the millions. 

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John Jackson is the co -founder of Sakura Samurai, an independent security research group. 

What does a 21st century hacking crew look like? Our first guest this week is trying to find out. John Jackson (@johnjhacking) is an independent security researcher and the co-founder of a new hacking group, Sakura Samurai, which includes a diverse array of security pros ranging from a 15 year old Australian teen to Aubrey Cottle, aka @kirtaner, the founder of the group Anonymous. Their goal: to energize the world of ethical hacking with daring and attention getting discoveries that stay on the right side of the double yellow line.

Update: DHS Looking Into Cyber Risk from TCL Smart TVs

In this interview, John and I talk about his recent research including vulnerabilities he helped discover in smart television sets by the Chinese firm TCL, the open source security module Private IP and the United Nations. 

Can PKI Automation Head Off Chaos?

One of the lesser reported sub plots in the recent Solar Winds hack is the use of stolen or compromised digital certificates to facilitate compromises of victim networks and accounts. Stolen certificates played a part in the recent hack of Mimecast, as well as in an attack on employees of a prominent think tank, according to reporting by Reuters and others. 

Avesta Hojjati is the head of Research & Development at Digicert.

How is it that compromised digital certificates are falling into the hands of nation state actors? One reason may be that companies are managing more digital certificates than ever, but using old systems and processes to do so. The result: it is becoming easier and easier for expired or compromised certificates to fly under the radar. 

Our final guest this week, Avesta Hojjati, the  Head of R&D at DigiCert, Inc. thinks we’ve only seen the beginning of this problem. As more and more connected “things” begin to populate our homes and workplaces, certificate management is going to become a critical task – one that few consumers are prepared to handle.

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What’s the solution? Hojjati thinks more and better use of automation is a good place to start. In this conversation, Avesta and I talk about how digital transformation and the growth of the Internet of Things are raising the stakes for proper certificate management and why companies need to be thinking hard about how to scale their current certificate management processes to meet the challenges of the next decade. 


(*) Disclosure: This podcast was sponsored by Digicert. For more information on how Security Ledger works with its sponsors and sponsored content on Security Ledger, check out our About Security Ledger page on sponsorships and sponsor relations.

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.

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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.

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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