Teleconferencing vendors defend product security features

Vendors emphasize that proper configuration of videoconferencing systems by administrators means enhanced security
  • Jeremy Kirk (IDG News Service)
  • 25 January, 2012 23:09

Teleconferencing vendors say they're trying to strike the right balance between security and usability after security researchers found they could dial in to the conference lines of major companies and manipulate video cameras to spy on boardrooms.

H.D. Moore and Mike Tuchen revealed their research for security company Rapid7 on Monday, detailing how easily attackers can secretly spy on boardrooms where conferencing systems have been left open to receive calls from anyone by default.

The problem boils down to auto-answer, a feature in products from companies such as Cisco, LifeSize and Polycom that automatically connects incoming video or audio calls. Moore, who is chief security officer at Rapid7, wrote a program to scan for teleconferencing systems in which administrators left this feature enabled, a major security issue.

Moore's scan covered about 3 percent of the addressable internet and found 250,000 systems using the H.323 protocol, a specification for audio and video calls. Moore said he found more than 5,000 organizations had left auto-answer enabled in products from vendors including Polycom, Cisco, LifeSize and Sony. Overall, the findings mean up to 150,000 systems across the internet could be vulnerable, according to Rapid7.

Once inside a conference room, Rapid7 said that even cheap videoconferencing systems could allow a person to "read a six-digit password from a sticky note over 20 feet away from the camera."

"In an otherwise quiet environment, it was possible to clearly hear conversations down the hallway from the video conferencing systems," Moore wrote on Rapid7's blog. "A separate test confirmed the ability to monitor a user's keyboard and accurately capture their password, simply by aiming the camera and using a high-level zoom."

But if all of the security features of the various teleconferencing systems were enabled, Moore "couldn't imagine anyone would use the product to make a phone call" due to the complexity, he said in an interview.

Companies often set up the systems outside their corporate firewall to make it easier, but that poses security risks. Deploying the systems inside a firewall can be difficult, as teleconferencing systems can use up to 30 different protocols in order to set up a call, which means firewalls have to be adjusted in order to let the calls come through, Moore said.

Polycom, one of the major teleconferencing vendors, ships most of its products with auto-answer enabled by default, according to Rapid7.

Polycom said it recommends administrators disable auto-answer when deploying a system outside the firewall, and that most of its systems are deployed within the firewall and therefore operate in a secure environment. Customers prefer the auto-answer feature enabled to make it easy for IT to manage video systems remotely, the company said.

Cisco said it was not aware of any new software vulnerabilities in its TelePresence products. On the issue of auto-answer, Cisco said "the feature on all Cisco TelePresence products is set by the administrator of the network."

LifeSize, a division of Logitech, said it ships all of its products with auto-answer disabled by default. Secure deployment remains a challenge with video conferencing systems, and the company is committed to simplifying the process, it said.

LifeSize said it offers a client-server NAT (Network Address Translation) traversal product called LifeSize Transit, which helps administrators set up conferencing behind the firewall with encryption. A cheaper option is LifeSize's Connections, which involves downloading a program to a computer. The cloud-based service allows for encrypted calling behind the firewall with a simplified setup process.

LifeSize is also doing more to try to educate its customers. On Tuesday, it launched the LifeSize Enablement Network, which is a series of short video training clips to educate its customers more about it products. That program was in development well before Rapid7's findings were publicized, according to a LifeSize spokeswoman.

But Moore feels overall teleconferencing systems should be made easier to securely deploy since they "are not very well understood by the technical people," he said.

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