August 18, 2022
Was R2-D2 a Hacker? Death Star Cybersecurity Lessons Learned
Could a movie made 45 years ago have given us our first glimpse into computer network exploitation? Released in 1977, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope featured advanced technology and artificial intelligence that powered starships, weapons systems, and humanoid robots. Throughout the movie, the filmmakers focused on cool hardware with intricate designs, light patterns, and functions. Arguably, software was in a supporting role and was given less screen time. While watching the film now, one has to marvel at the amount of software it would take to operate these systems. The amount of networking, programming, and maintenance needed for the Death Star alone would likely take tens of thousands of people (and maybe a few droids).
Keep in mind that this hardware and software driven vision of the future was delivered several years before the mass marketing of home PCs. For example, the Apple II had just been released and the first IBM home PC wouldn't hit the market for another three years. Although researchers were networking computers and starting to connect networks, it would be another 14 years until the release of the World Wide Web. Relatedly, the first mainstream computer virus, Brain, wouldn’t appear for another 9 years. Still, the writers gave us a glimpse into the future of information security risks in the form of a little droid named R2-D2.
Hacking The Galaxy’s Most Fearsome Weapon
Roughly half-way through the film, our heroes find themselves on a mission to rescue Princess Leia from her captivity on the Death Star. The team knows that they’re going to have to manipulate Death Star systems to view floor plans and gain entry to the detention level. The job falls to R2-D2. R2-D2 is a robotic Swiss Army knife whose support to saving the galaxy includes service as a video projector, fighter pilot’s assistant, and computer hacker. Let’s reconstruct each step of R2-D2’s attack on the Death Star cybersecurity kill chain to draw out lessons learned for hardening modern day information systems.
Gain Physical Access. With the help of Obi-Wan, Han, and Luke, R2-D2 and C-3PO gain control of a computer room from which they can access the Death Star’s computers. Throughout this sequence, the viewer notices that Storm Trooper uniforms conceal their identity and that there is no requirement to wear a badge or provide other indication of valid Empire employment. As a result, the team is unchallenged in the halls of a military installation. After a brief firefight that does not trip any alarms, R2-D2 gains quick access to the Death Star’s computer system.
Gain Logical Access. Luckily for Princess Leia, R2-D2 just happens to be equipped with the exact connector needed to interface with the Death Star. Once connected, it appears that credentials are not required for R2-D2 to authenticate. Further, from this port in an obscure closet deep within the space station, R2-D2 appears to have access to the entire Death Star. And not only the whole Death Star; Obi-Wan comments that the port will allow R2-D2 to tap “the entire Imperial network”. There is no user ID and password requirement, no network segmentation, and no principle of least privilege in use.
Exploitation. With unrestricted access to the Death Star’s complete design schematics and detention records, R2-D2 quickly finds the princess and gives direction to the team.
Eventually, guards get wise to unauthorized user activity that violates the Empire’s Acceptable Use Agreement, and R2-D2 and C-3PO find themselves on the run again. While on the run, from another unrestricted and unguarded port, R2-D2 manipulates Death Star functions and shuts down the trash compactor, which ultimately frees the team to escape and destroy the Death Star.
Although we celebrate this victory for the Rebel Alliance, Death Star security control failures offer several reminders that are relevant today:
Physically Protect Information Assets. This includes requiring that all employees wear identification, even over protective coverings. Sensitive server rooms should be locked and access restricted to only those with a need for access. Guards should also receive frequent training on how to detect and respond to unauthorized visitors. To check out a real-life example of getting past the guards, see our Blog post on Covert Physical Penetration Testing.
Manage Identity and Accesses. Although few modern systems would grant access without a user ID and password, many organizations overlook implementation and continued maintenance of user ID and password combinations that restrict access. For example, ensure that all default user ID and password combinations are changed or deactivated and note that software updates can sometimes return user IDs and passwords to their defaults. Require password changes on a regular basis, and deactivate user accounts when no longer required as soon as possible. If possible, implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA); for example, a storm trooper clone’s personal identifying code would satisfy the MFA standard of “something you are.”.
Limit the blast radius. R2-D2 should not have been able to access and move laterally across the entire Imperial network from one location and one account. Portions of the network that control sensitive assets, such as prisons, should be isolated on separate subnets from those where waste disposal is managed. While the Force can offer Jedi and Sith alike a great deal of power, granular access control lists (ACLs) help to stop even the most technically competent stowaways.
Apply Principles of Least Privilege. System owners and administrators should build role based access controls to restrict what a user can do. Certainly, an unauthenticated user should have absolutely no access. Although guest accounts may be needed, their access should be highly restricted and monitored. Likewise, roles with conflicting requirements, such as those authorized to pay contractors building the Death Star and those distributing the Imperial Credits, should be separated to reduce the likelihood of misuse.
Implement Monitoring and Alarm Controls. R2-D2’s wide-ranging activities, data searches, and control manipulation should have set off a few alarm bells. Sensors should be installed in sensitive areas to monitor activity and detect suspicious laser blasts. Monitoring controls can be configured to watch for unusual activity, such as time of day accesses or accesses out of character for a user’s normal activity. An example of this would be the same user controlling weapons systems design schematics and trash compactor operations. If the Death Star had a SIEM with well tuned alerting, administrators should have noticed and sent Storm Troopers to investigate well before Han exchanged pleasantries with a remote security guard over the radio “Uh, everything’s under control”.
Consider Zero Trust Architecture. Several principles of ZTA could have been applied to stop R2-D2. Under ZTA, the system would have validated whether R2-D2, as a device, should have been accessing the network. It also would have validated R2-D2 against each asset accessed, which could have limited the blast radius, enforced principles of least privilege, and set off alarms that R2-D2’s moves across the network from architectural diagrams to the trash compactor were suspicious.
Luckily for the Rebellion, the Death Star’s system administrators were woefully behind on good information security practices. For many enterprises, life and business happens and security controls can slowly degrade over time. Periodic testing and validation can locate vulnerabilities for remediation, which helps to lower overall risk profile.
Firms that offer penetration testing services, such as Dark Wolf, will apply the same tactics as nation state actors, independent hackers, and malicious insiders to validate and improve security. At Dark Wolf, we always incorporate exploitation attempts into our engagements, so that you get more than a vulnerability scan. For more information on Dark Wolf services, please contact email@example.com.
While brainstorming my next blog post, I’ve decided not to wade into the debate as to whether Gredo shot first.