Following up on the success of its Pwn Plug, a
plug-computer-based network penetration tool, Pwnie Express has recently
announced a power-strip-based successor: Power
Pwn. Both products (and another that lives
inside an N900 smartphone) are examples of the increasing capabilities of small,
innocuous-looking packages—ones that can gather an enormous amount of
sensitive data. But, Power Pwn is interesting for another reason: its
development was partially funded by the US government.
For those not up on "leetspeak" (an
alternative "language" used by the cracking/hacking and other subcultures),
need some explanation. It is essentially a misspelling of "own"
and in the cracking community is
used to mean compromising or controlling a computer system of some kind.
So, "pwning" a system is often the goal of attackers. The term is used
widely in security circles as well, such as the Pwnie Awards that are given out at the
Black Hat security conference.
So, while Pwnie Express's products are described as penetration testing
(pentesting) tools, their names and capabilities make it obvious that they are
quite suitable for more offensive tasks as well. Power Pwn is designed to
look like (and act like) an eight-outlet power strip or surge protector,
Ethernet ports, as well as a USB connector. Even when plugged into the network,
it could easily be overlooked behind a desk or in a crowded server room.
But the device has no need to be connected to the network to be useful. It
contains high-gain antennas for both Bluetooth and 802.11b/g/n, along with
an external 3G/GSM network adaptor. Beyond that, it has a 1.2 GHz ARM
processor with 512M of RAM and a 16G flash disk. It runs Debian 6 ("Squeeze") and comes
with an impressive array of security and
It's clear that Pwnie Express has done more than just load a bunch of
tools on top of the hardware and Debian, though. The device will call home
via SSH either over the wired connection or 3G/GSM. There is also the
ability to send shell commands to the device via SMS text messages. It
through firewalls and intrusion prevention systems (IPS). And so on. It
could clearly be of use to those of any hat shade—white, gray, or black.
Those interested in the device will have to wait a while, though, as it is currently
only available via pre-order (at a hefty $1295), with expected delivery at
the end of September. Most of the same features can be found in the Pwn
Plug that is available now (though not inexpensively: $795). That device
looks like a cross between a wall-wart power supply and a plug-in air
freshener—also easily overlooked.
Power Pwn was developed using money from the US Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency's (DARPA) new Cyber Fast
Track (CFT) program:
CFT is designed to fund research to be performed by boutique security
companies, individuals, and hacker/maker-spaces, and allow them to keep the
commercial Intellectual Property for what they create. The goal is not to
have these entities focus on solving DoD problems, but rather to fund
research efforts these organizations would have considered on their own but
are not pursuing due to complexity/cost/time/etc. Where it is an effort
that may help the community at large it is almost by definition within the
running lanes of CFT to consider. What's good for the community is good for
It's tempting to speculate about the uses that the US government might have
for a tool like Power Pwn. It's a bit hard to imagine that other,
more secretive organizations, such as the National Security Agency
(NSA), don't have similar—stealthier—devices already in
hand, though. So, DARPA's thinking is likely along the lines of what Pwnie
Express CEO Dave
Wired: "taking the tools that the hackers are using and
putting them in the hands of the people that need to defend against the
Over time, of course, these kinds of devices are only going to get smaller
and more stealthy. There are some limits, though, particularly in terms of
power and wired networking connections—at least today. But it is
clear that attackers are going to have better and better tools over time.
In a somewhat
different context (remote scanning), Bruce Schneier recently observed:
All sorts of remote surveillance technologies -- facial recognition, remote
fingerprint recognition, RFID/Bluetooth/cell phone tracking, license plate
tracking -- are becoming possible, cheaper, smaller, more reliable,
We're at a unique time in the history of surveillance: the cameras are
everywhere, and we can still see them. Fifteen years ago, they weren't
everywhere. Fifteen years from now, they'll be so small we won't be able to
Keeping network intrusion devices from gathering sensitive data—or
causing mayhem—is only going to get more difficult over time.
Devices like Power Pwn and Pwn Plug are just the beginning. Widespread
strong encryption, which will likely need to be deployed on wired networks
as well, can help. But that just makes guarding the keys that much more
important, of course. It's an arms race.
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