You Can Get Hacked Just By Watching This Cat Video on YouTube
By Morgan Marquis-Boire
Many otherwise well-informed people think they have to do something wrong, or stupid, or insecure to get hacked—like clicking on the wrong attachments, or browsing malicious websites. People also think that the NSA and its international partners are the only ones who have turned the internet into a militarized zone. But according to research I am releasing today at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, many of these commonly held beliefs are not necessarily true. The only thing you need to do to render your computer’s secrets—your private conversations, banking information, photographs—transparent to prying eyes is watch a cute cat video on YouTube, and catch the interest of a nation-state or law enforcement agency that has $1 million or so to spare.
To understand why, you have to realize that even in today’s increasingly security-conscious internet, much of the traffic is still unencrypted. You might be surprised to learn that even popular sites that advertise their use of encryption frequently still serve some unencrypted content or advertisements. While people now recognize that unencrypted traffic can be monitored, they may not recognize that it also serves as a direct path into compromising their computers.
Companies such as Hacking Team and FinFisher sell devices called “network injection appliances.” These are racks of physical machines deployed inside internet service providers around the world, which allow for the simple exploitation of targets. In order to do this, they inject malicious content into people’s everyday internet browsing traffic. One way that Hacking Team accomplishes this is by taking advantage of unencrypted YouTube video streams to compromise users. The Hacking Team device targets a user, waits for that user to watch a YouTube clip like the one above, and intercepts that traffic and replaces it with malicious code that gives the operator total control over the target’s computer without his or her knowledge. The machine also exploits Microsoft’slogin.live.com web site in the same manner.