Charlie Miller, a researcher at Black Hat security, has studied the lithium batteries used in MacBooks, MacBook Pros, and MacBook Airs, as well as other laptops from other manufacturers, discovering a seemingly as yet unexploited hole in their security: a microcontroller in their batteries that communicates with the operating system to determine when to charge and when not to charge the battery, in order to regulate their own heat for safety purposes.
While that computer chip is important in saving energy and keeping Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) laptop fully functioning, it is shipped with a default password, allowing any decent hacker who discovers that password to control the chip’s firmware. Once hackers have access to the firmware, they can do everything from ruining the batteries at will, even potentially causing them to heat up and explode, to implanting them with malware that will continually infect a computer.
In analyzing a 2009 Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) software update intended to fix a problem with MacBook batteries, Miller easily discovered the two default passwords used to access the microcontroller. With those passwords, he was able to reverse engineer the chip’s firmware and send whatever readings he wanted to the operating system and charger. He could have also set up malware to steal data or cause the computer to crash, among other things. And Miller says most IT administrators wouldn’t even think to look at the battery as the source of infection, allowing it to re-infect the computer over and over again.
Miller, who has worked as a hacker for the National Security Agency, is currently a researcher with consulting firm Accuvant. While some researchers worry that what Miller discovers in his research could encourage hackers, he is working on solutions to the problems he is discovering. Miller is creating “Caulkgun”, a tool for Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) users that changes their battery’s default password. While changing the password would prevent Apple from upgrading and fixing battery-related problems, anyone with any hacker or super-spy enemies might want to consider the tradeoff.