Malware Hiding In Laptop Batteries? Not A Threat. Malware That Kills Laptop Batteries? Very Real.

Written by Frank Hayes
July 27th, 2011

Reports this week detail a very serious new IT security threat in which a Trojan Horse can hide in a laptop battery and then spread to the hard disk. Those reports were rampant, frightening and wildly overblown. This much is true: Security researcher Charlie Miller of Accuvant Labs discovered that the embedded processors in Apple’s laptop batteries are protected by simple passwords he was able to find online. He was then able to render the batteries completely dead by changing the firmware. That’s a serious security threat in itself. But it’s speculation about what might be possible with the batteries that has generated bogus headlines.

Miller was able to force the batteries to overcharge, and he considered the possibility of making them catch fire or explode—but decided he didn’t want to destroy his home. Miller also told interviewers it might be possible to create malware that could be hidden in a laptop’s battery, so it would return no matter how many times the attack code was removed from other components. But he didn’t try to make that happen, either.

“You could put a whole hard drive in, re-install the software, flash the BIOS, and every time it would re-attack and screw you over. There would be no way to eradicate or detect it other than removing the battery,” Miller speculated to Forbes.

That’s true. But as Miller himself pointed out, there’s also no way for the malware embedded in the battery to get out without the help of another piece of malware in the operating system or an application—one that would copy the battery’s malware out of the firmware and into the laptop. A fresh install of a hard disk, operating system and BIOS wouldn’t have any reason to include that type of code. It’s an if-we-had-some-pastrami-we-could-make-sandwiches-if-we-had-some-bread scenario—interesting speculation and a real headline grabber, but not a realistic threat.

It’s also unlikely that Miller would ever have been able to use firmware hacks to make a battery explode, thanks to the improved design of laptop batteries in the wake of actual incidents of batteries catching fire. The internal fuses that now prevent that type of massive overheating from happening accidentally also prevent it from happening intentionally. Evil firmware or not, when fuses blow, the battery will shut down. (At least one earlier researcher specifically tried to make lithium-ion laptop batteries catch fire using firmware. He never succeeded.)

But malware that shuts down a battery permanently? Completely, frighteningly plausible, and a threat that could disable millions of laptops at once—from Apple or possibly other manufacturers. Too bad the real danger is likely to be obscured by visions of explosions and unkillable viruses. Those might make great summer movies, but that’s about as far as they’re likely to go.


Comments are closed.


StorefrontBacktalk delivers the latest retail technology news & analysis. Join more than 60,000 retail IT leaders who subscribe to our free weekly email. Sign up today!

Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

Our apologies. Due to legal and security copyright issues, we can't facilitate the printing of Premium Content. If you absolutely need a hard copy, please contact customer service.