Infrared Snarfing?

By | September 15, 2004

Is the Infrared port on your computer a security hazard?

LA-based Ligatt Corp, a computer security company, reckon so. In a press release issued yesterday, the company says it was able “to gain entry into two out of ten computers and started copying files” belonging to customers at a local Borders bookstore using a Windows CE-powered PDA. This was done by simply pointing the PDA at the target laptop and using a custom built program to grab, or snarf, files on those computers that had the infrared port switched on.

Ligatt’s conclusion: ”The good news is that Microsoft has been careful in deploying appropriate defaults so that it would not be easy for someone to maliciously send you a virus or worm. Amazingly enough, little attention is paid to the infrared port that comes standard with most laptops on the market.”

Ligatt, in fact, is not alone in recognising the vulnerabilities of the infrared port, although it does not appear to be a point often made. I found references to it on websites like LabMice.Net, a laptop security site, and Nottingham University’s inform online, both of which advised users to disable the port, as does Ligatt.

So how big a deal is this? The knee-jerk answer is: Not much. Infrared works over pretty short distance (my tests indicated four feet); you need to have the infrared ports on each device pointed directly at each other; in Windows a notification window pops up should any infrared connection be established; and finally, connection speeds are pretty slow, so snarfing files of any size is probably going to take to long to be that stealthy.

That said, I think Ligatt probably have a point. Infrared is on by default, both with Windows and PDAs (I think). I imagine it’s relatively easy to write software that could bypass the notification window in Windows, and distance (and angle) are not going to deter the committed industrial spy. Infrared may not be the best way in to a computer or PDA, but it is a way, and it’s probably best to turn it off on your machine until you use it.

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