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HP keylogger: How did it get there and how can it be removed?

A keylogging flaw found its way into dozens of Hewlett Packard laptops. Nick Lewis explains how the HP keylogger works and what can be done about it.

More than two dozen models of Hewlett Packard laptops were found to contain a keylogger that recorded keystrokes...

into a log file. HP released patches to remove the keylogger and the log files. How did the HP keylogger vulnerability get embedded in the laptops? And is there anything organizations can do to test new endpoint devices?

When it comes to security, having high expectations for security vendors and large vendors with deep pockets is reasonable given that customers usually pay a premium believing the vendors will devote significant resources to secure their products. Unfortunately, as with most other security teams, companies often don't have enough resources or organizational fortitude to ensure security is incorporated into all of the enterprise's software development.

But even the most secure software development can enable security issues to slip through the cracks. When you add in an outsourced hardware or software development team, it's even easier for something to go unnoticed.

So while vendors might talk a good talk when it comes to security, monitoring them to ensure they uphold their end of your agreement is absolutely necessary.

One case where a vulnerability apparently escaped notice was uncovered when researchers at Modzero AG, an information security company based in Winterthur, Switzerland, found that a bug had been introduced into HP laptops by a third-party driver installed by default.

But even the most secure software development can enable security issues to slip through the cracks.

The vulnerability was discovered in the Conexant HD Audio Driver package, where the driver monitors for certain keystrokes used to mute or unmute audio. The keylogging functionality, complete with the ability to write all keystrokes to a log file, was probably introduced to help the developers debug the driver.

We can hope that the HP keylogger vulnerability was left in inadvertently when the drivers were released to customers. Modzero found metadata indicating the HP keylogger capability was present in HP computers since December 2015, if not earlier.

It's difficult to know whether static or dynamic code analysis tools could have detected this vulnerability. However, given the resources available to HP in 2015, including a line of business related to application and code security, as well as the expectations of their customers, it might be reasonable to assume HP could have incorporated these tools into their software development practices. However, the transfer of all of HP's information security businesses to a new entity, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, began in November 2015, and was completed in September 2017, when Micro Focus merged with HPE.

It's possible that Modzero found the HP keylogger vulnerability while evaluating a potential new endpoint for an enterprise customer. They could have been monitoring for open files, or looking for which processes had the files open to determine what the process was doing. They could have been profiling the individual processes running by default on the system to see which binaries to investigate for vulnerabilities. They could even have been monitoring to see if any processes were monitoring keystrokes.

Enterprises can take these steps on their own or rely on third parties to monitor their vendors. Many enterprises will install their own image on an endpoint before deploying it on their network -- the known good images used for developing specific images for target hardware could have their unique aspects analyzed with a dynamic or runtime application security tool to determine if any common vulnerabilities are present.

Next Steps

Learn more about how Windows 10 uses key logging for data collection

Find out how to keep touchscreen devices free from keyloggers and touchscreen attacks

Read about how the iSpy keylogger used to steal passwords and software licenses

This was last published in October 2017

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What should hardware vendors do to prevent malware like the HP keylogger vulnerability from appearing in their commercial products?
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