By Humphrey Cheung
October 3, 2006
San Diego (CA) - Cheap computers for the world's poor could mean big
security headaches. The $100 One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is
inviting hackers to break test out and even break the security on the
upcoming computers. Speaking at the Toorcon computer security
convention, OLPC representative Ivan Kristic said the OLPC will create
the largest monoculture in history and the it will present some "very
scary" security problems.
The low-pricedLinux-based computers will be sold to third-world
countries and will have a 500 MHz AMD processor along with 128 MB of
system memory and 512 MB of Flash storage memory. Standardized hardware
along with a standard software image is one reason why the machines will
be so cheap, but Kristic explains that this standardization will cause
If tens of millions of OLPCs are sold, the device could create one of
the largest computer monocultures in history, similar to what has
happened to the Apple Macintosh. One single exploit could easily wipe
out millions of computers.
One huge security risk, according to Kristic, is that new computers will
transparently transmit application code from one computer to another.
The cheap laptops are meant to operate in a mesh wireless network and if
one computer doesn't have an application, then it can acquire it
wirelessly from another computer. Kristic calls this scenario "bloody
The OLPC is also designed to be very hackable and Kristic told Toorcon
attendees that there was, "a lot of value" from having kids take apart
the machine. If something goes wrong, the computer is designed to be
easily restored from a server, USB sticks or from the mesh network. But
the same easily hackable and easily restorable machine has to be made
secure and that's where hackers come into play.
Kristic said, "I want to help you break these machines... before there
is a billion of them out in the field."
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