3/30/2009 7:00 AM
As if computer viruses weren’t bad enough, it now appears there’s a new variety of viruses and worms just waiting to attack your digital television. The newly-discovered virus is similar to the Conflicker C virus that experts claim will be activated on April 1. While researchers don’t yet know exactly what will happen when the Conflicker C virus activates, the issue is serious enough that Microsoft has offered $250,000 to anyone who can help find the code’s author.
While researching the Conflicker C virus, I was tipped off that another bug was about to launch itself onto the video scene. This bug is called Pentonion, but rather than being spread among computers, this bug is being spread to DTV sets across America. My tipster said that the FCC has received a secret report on this potentially destructive virus, but is hesitant to release the news because of the widespread scare and economic damage it might cause. My unnamed source said the report was given to the commission on January 20. If that’s true, then why wasn’t it released to the public? I wanted to find the answer to that question.
According to my source, the report was written by researcher Dr. Aadley Kcid. This professor and scientist described his discovery as a new type of computer virus that is specifically targeted at digital televisions. Dr. Kcid’s report says that the virus may actually be several years old and that it is well hidden deeply inside most digital televisions. Dr. Kcid said he accidentally discovered the virus while performing research on ASTC decoding schemes for mobile TV.
As television and video engineers realize, today’s video products are highly software dependent and rely on code that resides on PROMS, FPGAs and other solid-state storage. This operating code, according to Dr. Kcid, can be changed by using Binomial Factor Decoding (BFD) techniques and a TV set’s “backdoor," which exists on most digital televisions.
Dr. Kcid said the hidden code resides in the higher regions of the DTV’s memory. He was able to trick the chips into dumping that code into his analyzer, which he was then able to examine.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Dr. Kcid said. “Here was a virus or worm, but unlike its computer cousin, this one was hidden deep inside this TV set. That’s when I realized that a modern DTV it is just as likely to have a computer virus as my desktop PC." The researcher then set about trying to find out what the DTV virus would do when activated. That step turned out to be more difficult than he ever expected.
After talking with Dr. Kcid, I then called several TV set manufacturers and asked them about the possibility of a computer virus infecting their products. “Absolutely not possible,” said Karen Kohen, VP of marketing for TelevisionPlus. “We are totally secure that our TV sets don’t have any viruses in them and that they couldn’t possibly have any in the future,” she said.
Several more calls produced similar results. Representatives from Panasonic, Sony, and LCD all denied the possibility of any virus infecting their sets. However, one company engineer did say something that piqued my interest. He said that because the ASTC standards don’t prevent someone from remultiplexing the data stream just prior to transmission, it would “technically” be possible to ride the TV code all the way into a television set. Once there, the code would download itself into a spare memory location on a processor chip, thereby reprogramming the TV set. “All one would have to do is use the stream’s null packets as the carrier,” he said. “They represent a totally free, and hidden, highway directly into the heart of a TV set.”
Then I began to worry. Are American TV sets at risk? Does our ASTC system have a fatal flaw? If so, what might happen on June 12 when analog dies? Is it possible someone is secretly reprogramming millions of TV sets to go dark or display some type of subversive message?
Okay, I now realized it was possible for DTV sets to become infected with a virus, but that still left the question as to why. What possible benefit would a computer hacker have to either damage television sets, or play some type of bogus message? A plot this large and so potentially explosive had to have huge financial resources behind it.
I called the commission, asking for comment on the researcher’s discovery. Mary Nokansay, executive spokesperson for chairman-designate Genamyski, refused any direct comment on the possibility of an attacking virus. However she did confirm that the commission staff had received Dr. Kcid’s report and was investigating. “We don’t believe there’s anything to worry about,” she said.
I again called Dr. Kcid and reported my findings. He acted surprised, saying, “I wonder why the manufacturers won’t admit the problem. They should have discovered this earlier. All they had to do was run the multiplexed data stream through a standardized BFD detector and examine the results."
I asked Dr. Kcid if the code might just be an Easter egg. That’s where the software programmers insert notes and commentary or photos into their code. The eggs are usually activated by some unique combination of buttons or clicks. Dr. Kcid said no, he didn’t think so. When I asked him why, he replied, “because of the message.” “What’s the message?” I asked.
He replied, “April fool.”