Despite upgrades, security experts fear $100 laptops

The One Laptop per Child program has upped the specs of its laptop and claims the devices will be secure, but security researchers wonder if the project will lead to widespread abuse

WASHINGTON -- Despite a concerted effort on the part of the One Laptop per Child project to improve the overall security of its devices, researchers contend that the effort to distribute new teaching resources to the world's young and poor could create significant problems.

Addressing the assembled crowd during the final presentation of this year's ShmooCon show on March 25, a panel of experts ranging from the laptop program's chief security architect to well-known white hat industry pundits debated the potential impact of the project, which hopes to distribute as many as 10 million of its sub-$100 devices in the next year.

Since the OLPC project's inception in 2005, security experts have openly questioned how the group would ensure that its diminutive, neon-colored laptops wouldn't be used to wreak havoc, or be overrun by malware attacks, after they land in children's hands.

Many of the recipients will be in developing regions of the world where the devices may be stolen from youngsters and where end users will have little concept of the dangers that exist in the computing world, critics said.

Ivan Krstić, director of security architecture for OLPC, which has its base of operations in Cambridge, Mass., told ShmooCon attendees that the project's newly-upgraded laptop prototype has added many innovations that will help keep the computers operating safely.

OLPC has long maintained that strong ties between the program and the United Nations, along with the devices' colorful appearance, will protect them from being swiped from the children, aged 5 to 15, who carry them in hazardous social climes.

When the latest model of the device -- dubbed the XO-1 and made by Quanta -- was introduced in Feb. 2007, it carried a new security architecture along with its hardware upgrades that will make the machines in some ways more secure than some traditional desktop PCs, Krstić said.

Labeled as Bitfrost, the security architecture offers everything from embedded technology to allow more powerful encryption, to so-called "theft leases" that allow the laptops to be shut down remotely if stolen. In the case that a malware program makes an unwanted change to the XO-1's Linux-based operating system, an original version of the OS remains available on the device so that it can be quickly restored.

But perhaps the most important security feature built into the devices is also one of its most controversial, Krstić admitted.

Traditional security philosophy would likely dictate placing strict controls over what applications could be run on the machines, but the OLPC believes that its design can block attacks and foster learning through an approach that's more open yet promises unique protection.

Users can download whatever programs they like on the laptops, but the computers won't accept unapproved applications that execute virus-like behavior. The system also seeks to prevent attacks that violate any of the device's underlying protections, such as banning any Web-based software that attempts to view footage on the machines' onboard cameras.

At the core of Bitfrost is an applications-handling technology that runs each program in a semi-virtual environment to help prevent unwanted software interaction.

"Security vendors would say don't let the kids run anything you haven't signed, but that says nothing about the corrupting of approved applications or attacking the rest of the system; and since we want kids to have complete control of the computers, that's not an option," Krstić said.

"Instead of protecting from executing untrusted code, we protect while running unwanted code, and keep it from doing bad things to the system," Krstić said. "By running each application in its own virtual machine, and only giving each program the permissions that it needs, you suddenly get rid of a lot of common problems with viruses and spyware."

OLPC is so bent on allowing its young users to get their hands into the laptops' underlying operations, it has added a key to the devices' keyboards that allows them to view the source code of programs they are running. Security researchers contend that such features may create more problems than they solve.

Sean Coyne, a member of the Vulnerable Minds security think tank, told the ShmooCon crowd that the devices could easily be turned into a 10 million node botnet operation, or even have their cameras compromised by malware that helps aid in acts of international slavery and kidnapping.

On a more basic level, it will be very hard to control the fate of the computers aftrer they get outside the friendly landscape of academics and philanthropists who have conceived them, the expert said.

"This learning machine was made to be malleable in the file system, to be able to swap parts, and for the kids to see the code, and that's all fantastic for the kids, but those are also its greatest weaknesses," Coyne said. "Through changing it, people can nullify all the security concerns that have been taken, and throw away the good work that's been done."

The consultant theorized that foreign governments -- who are largely responsible for procuring the laptops -- could use them to distribute propaganda, or to track children's movements, or that people who see the machines as tools of Western influence might seek to take them from children and destroy the devices.

On another level, Coyne said that people in other nations may not want to see their children exposed to many of the social aspects of applications such as the Internet.

"Net culture is dominated by Western society, and now this is being piped into these developing nations and its unsure who is ready for it. Are these cultures ready for YouTube?" Coyne proposed. "We know that laptops can be exploited, and that kids can be exploited; kids with laptops can definitely be taken advantage of."

Other security experts lauded the OLPC's thrust, but questioned whether the project hasn't jumped to conclusions in thinking it can truly achieve its goal of changing education in poor nations simply by distributing the millions of laptops.

"Security is a combination of the ludicrous and the dangerous. You have to prepare all the time for things you can't see, and be able to respond to things you didn't plan for," said Jason Scott, founder of the bulletin board archiving site. "The OLPC has made a bunch of speculations about the security of its laptop. People see it as a beautiful sweet little candy-colored neon machine and want to sprinkle it all over the muffin of Africa. There are a lot of things that could go wrong."