There’s a nasty little game afoot where new laptops come with undesirable extras. I’m talking about “crapware” – all those annoying little programs and invitations to sign up and buy that suddenly fill your screen moments after you first boot up. That’s not the way anyone deserves to experience those heady first moments with a major new purchase. And yet, it’s exactly what happens with nearly all new laptops and pcs.
If you ask, you’re told that it’s been in practice by big companies for a while; that it’s the way business is done; that it’s nothing to worry about. That doesn’t make it right. And as of today, that doesn’t make it safe.
It has been discovered that the plethora of advertising extras pre-installed on Lenovo laptops contains a hidden danger. A piece of adware, known as “Superfish Visual Discovery”, actually conducts a type of attack known as “MiTM” or Man-in-the-Middle, where it messes with that lovely new laptop’s configuration, and actually compromises a key security component. And no, that is not supposed to happen. Which is why I think it’s time to speak up and speak out about this practice.
Plenty of top-drawer securitytech experts are currently dissecting and revealing the ugly truth about “Superfish”. Simply put by Marc Rogers on Marc’s Security Ramblings,:
Lenovo is installing adware that uses a “man-in-the-middle” attack to break secure connections on affected laptops in order to access sensitive data and inject advertising. As if that wasn’t bad enough they installed a weak certificate into the system in a way that means affected users cannot trust any secure connections they make – TO ANY SITE.
Rik Ferguson offers this explanation on CounterMeasures:
Superfish also installs its own self-signed Root Certificate Authority… Superfish can generate any certificate it wants, which will be trusted by your browser as entirely legitimate, allowing it to impersonate any destination on the internet. These sites are normally protected by strong encryption for your security
Rob Graham on Errata Security described how he was able to “intercept the encrypted communications of SuperFish’s victims (people with Lenovo laptops)”. On Twitter, he challenged the supposition by Peter Hortensius, CTO of Lenovo, that the problem was “theoretical” by saying how he had tested and proved otherwise. And Steve Ragan on Salted Hash Security News hits the nail on the head when he states:
Even if the user removes the Superfish software, the certificate remains trusted and installed on the system. As for the opt-in requirement, most users agree to everything when configuring a new system, assuming they even notice the Superfish TOS to begin with.
What really bothers me is that most users don’t have the technical skillsets to understand what is actually happening, let alone to diagnose and disinfect. From my years of experience working with end users, cleaning up this kind of mess definitely falls outside reasonable expectations of what we should ask most people to do. Helping folks overcome their fear of technology is always challenging. Most people would just like the problem to go away. Or for someone else to fix it. There is a point to which you can lead users, but then they balk.
My team and I are all about simplifying technology for users. And honestly, if you can teach someone the easy ways to do things right, like security, then it’s like teaching that proverbial man to fish: they’ll be fine for the rest of their lives. But there is nothing simple about cleaning up malware, spyware, adware and the technical mess they inflict on devices. Nobody who really cares about their customers should be asking them to start prodding around in program or registry files even if the customer is technically qualified. Because confusion happens and mistakes can be made.
It’s really great to hear the outcry against what’s been going, and to put the issue squarely in front of major manufacturers. Time for certain parties to take a good look in the mirror: How can you proclaim your commitment to improving security when you’re actually contributing to a key source of problems? I love this statement by Marc Rogers on Marc’s Security Ramblings :
We trust our hardware manufacturers to build products that are secure. In this current climate of rising cybercrime, if you can’t trust your hardware manufacturer you are in a very difficult position
That said, what can you do about it? First and foremost, you need to get that junk off your device. I’m happy to report that some terrific folks have been addressing that and there are some good suggestions on how to detect and remove. For those inclined to do take the task on, read the steps through carefully a couple of times to make sure it’s clear before you undertake anything. I can recommend this piece by PC World. As well, I found this piece by ZDNet a little more detailed and perhaps easier to follow.
Crapware serves no purpose other than garnering profit. Lenovo has a PR nightmare ahead, and they have a lot to answer for. While they claim to have halted shipping it back in January, that does nothing about what’s already out there. Hopefully this serves notice to other distributors about cleaning up their acts so they don’t get caught up in the same net with “Superfish”. Because the only real victims in this fish fry are the end-users.
NOTE: The awesome pic up at the top is by talented InfoSec member and artist @EddieTheYeti