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Readers Write: Will You be Shocked by Shellshock?

October 1, 2014 Readers Write No Comments

Will You be Shocked by Shellshock?
By John Gomez

Here is a riddle for you. What is old yet new, and at the same time scary yet contained, while being known yet potentially a big surprise?

If you answered Shellshock, you collect $200 and go to the front of the class. Shellshock is a new computer exploit that was discovered in the past few weeks, but “new” isn’t exactly right. The actual vulnerability, which may compromise Linux- and Unix-based systems, has actually been around for 25 years. While newly discovered, it is actually rather old.

Shellshock is scary because it allows someone to take over a Linux- or Unix-based computer (such as your Mac, iPhone, iPad, BSD, Red Hat, Ubuntu system) and bypass all security. This is accomplished by accessing the old-school command line shell known as Bash and executing commands that to most of us make no sense at all in this day of graphical interfaces.

Want to see if your Mac, Linux, or Unix system is vulnerable? Open a terminal or command shell and type in the following (no, it won’t give me super secret ninja access to your system):

env x='() { :;}; echo vulnerable’ bash -c ‘echo this is a test’

If you see the word “vulnerable” after you hit enter, your system is at risk.

Before you get worried, keep in mind that in most cases, if you have a firewall up and running, you are more than likely safe (assuming your firewall isn’t at risk of Shellshock, but that is beyond our focus in this article). 

Shellshock exists because a programmer 25 years ago made a coding error in a fundamental part of the operating system. Shellshock isn’t some trick or hack — it’s just exploiting a bug. Unlike a worm or virus that is purpose built, Shellshock is really just a how-to for hackers to embrace.

Most vendors of Unix/Linux-based systems such as Apple, Red Hat, and others have already released patches to fix the bug. The challenge you face is making sure that you deploy these patches quickly. A smart hacker could take control of your system and prevent the patch from being effective, so time isn’t on your side. You need to move fast.

You can ask your security team to check their IDS and other logs to see if someone has attempted to gain access to your system using the Shellshock vulnerability. If your team sees active Shellshock scans, you should really do a triple check of your systems and determine if you were penetrated. It isn’t easy to figure out, and more than likely you should get professional support if you suspect you were scanned and successfully attacked.

We have covered why Shellshock is old yet new and scary yet contained. What about known and yet a surprise? It is known simply because we know the targets. Most hackers are going to attack web, database, and other IP-based servers on your network that run on Linux/Unix. Where is the surprise?

The surprise is that what may be most vulnerable are those things we think of the least. Most connected devices we find in a healthcare environment (from a lab to a clinic to a retail pharmacy to a doctor’s office and everything in between) are based on some form of Linux/Unix. This not only includes your medical devices and diagnostic equipment, but also things like your security system, CCTV cameras, and smart door locks.  

Being we live in the age of the Internet of Things (IOTS), chances are that if your device or system has an IP address or a call-home feature, it is running some form or Linux/Unix. That means that you could be in a for a big surprise if a hacker gains control of your MRI, CT scanner, or something less critical like your CCTV cameras.

The good news in all this (if there is good news) is that most devices run a form of Linux/Unix known as BusyBox, which is not vulnerable to Shellshock. Also, most devices in healthcare environments do not make use of Bash, which is the component that is vulnerable.  

That said, you really shouldn’t just hope that your devices are running BusyBox or that Bash isn’t present. It would be wise and prudent (and some may say legally responsible) to evaluate your risk by contacting your vendors to see what devices are vulnerable. Ask the vendor directly what they intend to do and how quickly if they have an at-risk system. Don’t be surprised if many of your device vendors don’t know if they are at risk or not — many deploy Linux/Unix systems and cannot clearly detail if Bash is enabled or not.

If the device you are concerned about involves patient care, you have a critical decision to make and need to clearly understand if there was an attack. For the most part, patient care devices such as an MRI are behind (or should be behind) several layers of network protection or only have a one-way connection using a trusted tunnel. While hoping that is true, check, double-check, and triple-check because lives are at stake.

You should also make sure your physical security organizations understands the impact of Shellshock on their systems. In this IOTS world, many of the devices that could be vulnerable may have nothing to do with traditional IT. For instance webcams allowing security teams to monitor infrastructure are IP based and many are now accessible to security officers from smartphones. Most webcams have built-in web servers based on Linux/Unix and live on your network in some form or fashion.  It is important that those who are responsible for non-IT/HIT electronic devices also make sure that their devices are secure and not vulnerable to Shellshock.

Lastly, you should be checking with your HIPAA business associates to understand their response to Shellshock. You have an ongoing requirement to ascertain your BA’s ability to protect patient health information. Like Heartbleed, Shellshock is considered a significant threat and could easily be used to compromise PHI. Failure to assure that your BA is taking steps to secure your PHI on their networks from Shellshock could be an issue for your organization.

So there you have it. Shellshock is all at once old and new, scary and contained, and known. Because of this brave new world of connected everything, it could very well provide you with the surprise of your life.

John Gomez is CEO of Sensato of Asbury Park, NJ.

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