Another day, another report of a potential hack that could cause some real trouble. Researchers at Berlin's SR Labs have discovered that firmware can be rewritten on any sort of USB device, be it a keyboard, a mouse, or a flash drive, and exploits could involve logging keystrokes, eavesdropping on communications, and a virus favorite, destroying data.
What's concerning about all of this is that SR Labs says that such an implementation would be invisible to anti-malware and anti-virus tools, as those don't scan at such a low-level - this firmware would be also helping the device function, after all. As such, nothing would likely be stored in RAM, which is the area scanner tools look for real-time breaches.
Here's an interesting implementation: Your smartphone. If plugged into the PC via USB, and such malicious firmware exists, it could be used to either cause trouble, or send some information over the Internet to those who created it. Again, because these exploits would be such low-level functions, scanners might be hard-pressed to detect it, and there's the potential that even a firewall wouldn't stop an Internet transaction since it could be expected of the device.
Karsten Nohl, chief scientist with SR Labs, has noted that this kind of hack is simple enough where the likes of the National Security Agency might already be taking advantage of it. Both Nohl and Jakoc Lell, a security researcher at SR Labs, will be showing-off their findings at next week's Black Hat conference in Las Vegas.
Do end-users have anything to worry about? Not at this point, as either a special chip would need to be installed into a given USB device, or a device's firmware would have to be re-writable without affecting the normal function of the device. It's all possible, but it strikes me as an exploit that would never be anything but seriously niche. Unless, of course, a vendor of popular USB devices gets breached and starts spitting these things out by the millions. That almost sounds like the plot-line to a cheesy hacker movie.