Drop a bad habit, gain a virus

November 26, 2014

Stopping smoking usually involves conquering a psychological and physical addiction, but for one unlucky would-be quitter the fight included a virtual enemy.

Back in the earlier days of e-cigarettes, before the FDA announced plans to regulate e-cigarettes–an industry representative admitted to NBC Chicago that his products had some safety issues: “When you charge them, they are 99.9 percent safe, but occasionally there will be failures.”

He was, of course, talking about physical safety; a Mother Jones report earlier this year was subtitled “a brief history of e-cigs blowing up—in your face, in your car, in your home, in your bar. ” But if that weren’t enough, e-cigarettes are now also proving virtually dangerous: last week an IT employee on Reddit outlined the case of a malware infection that came as the result of using a USB port to charge an e-cigarette that was made in China.

Just how the e-cigarette was loaded with the virus is a mystery, but in a really geeky way it’s an interesting whodunit. As this Reuters graphic shows, e-cigarettes have become big business, earning hundreds of patents, most of them from China. That the virus could have been programmed directly into the e-cigarette is quite possible. A few years ago a digital picture frame from Samsung shipped with malware on the install disc, and Rik Ferguson, a security consultant for Trend Micro, told The Guardian, “Production line malware has been around for a few years, infecting photo frames, MP3 players and more.”

But since all USB devices are now suspect, the virus could have been tacked on later, too. In August security researchers Karsten Nohl and Jakob Lell published code for an undetectable, (currently) unfixable piece of malware, called BadUSB, which affects the USB device’s firmware, and which can be passed to and from computers seamlessly. Their hope is that by publicizing the virus, they will put pressure on manufacturers to fix it.

It’s still not clear how the malware was acquired, but we can look at one man’s attempt to wean himself from demon nicotine as a cautionary tale for the holiday buying season. The BadUSB virus is scary, even if not fully exploited in the wild, but one way to mitigate virtual risk is to avoid buying things from dodgy sellers on eBay. Besides, everyone prefers the personal touch of a hand-made gift anyway.


This post was updated on Nov. 26 to reflect the FDA’s involvement in regulating e-cigarettes.


One comment

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The things that people come up with to discredit e cigs can get outrageous sometimes, blowing up? Come on now. The same thing can happen to anything with a battery… I’m not saying that e cigs are completely safe to use, as liquid nicotine is known to be a as harmful a substance as the nicotine you ingest from smoking traditional cigarettes. Here’s an article that describes the detrimental effects of liquid nicotine: http://www.hazyshop.com/blog/information  /e-cigs-more-dangerous-than-cigarettes/

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