Hotel room break-ins blamed on hacked locks

The vulnerability had been exposed this year at the Black Hat Security Conference in Las Vegas

A string of break-ins at a Houston hotel are being blamed on hackers who exploited a flaw in room locks, a vulnerability that was exposed this year at the Black Hat Security Conference in Las Vegas.

The Hyatt House Galleria in Houston determined that locks made by Onity had been opened with a simple device that plugs into the bottom of the lock and causes the door to pop open, according to Forbes. Mozilla software developer Cody Brocious demonstrated such a disturbingly easy hack at the Black Hat Security event. Using an easy-to-make $50 device, Brocious showed attendees how he could break into a standard Onity hotel room lock.

Brocious' exploit involves a device that plugs into the DC port on the bottom of the outside portion of the lock. The hacking tool simulates a device that hotel room operators use to program locks to accept master keys. The exploit is pretty simple -- since key information is not protected in Onity locks, Brocious' tool is able to read the lock's memory, obtain key information and unlock the door.

Though Brocious' hack was somewhat unreliable (in a Forbes article written about the exploit, Brocious was only able to open one of three locks he demonstrated the device on), it was still a cause for concern.

"With how stupidly simple this is, it wouldn't surprise me if a thousand other people have found this same vulnerability and sold it to other governments," Brocious told Forbes back in July. "An intern at the NSA could find this in five minutes."

Well, it looks like an intrepid hacker decided to take Brocious up on that challenge. Last month, Houston police arrested 27-year-old Matthew Allen Cook after a stolen HP laptop turned up in a local pawn shop. The shop helped police identify Cook, who has been charged with theft in one break-in, and is a suspect in a couple of other cases.

According to hotel management company White Lodging, Onity only started fixing its lock problem after the Hyatt had experienced its string of break-ins in early September. What's more, the company is asking hotels to cover the cost of the full fix, which involves replacing the lock's hardware and circuit board. If hotels don't want to spend money on the fix, they can accept Onity's free offer of a plastic plug that blocks the port on the bottom of the lock (and obscure screws so that the plugs can't be easily removed).

Brocious thinks that this is a bad idea.

"Given that it won't be a low-cost endeavor, it's not hard to imagine that many hotels will choose not to properly fix the issues, leaving customers in danger," Brocious wrote in a blog post published in August.

"If such a significant issue were to exist in a car, customers would likely expect a complete recall at the expense of the manufacturer...I can't help but feel that Onity has the same responsibility to their customers, and to customers staying in hotels protected by Onity locks," he wrote.

The bottom line is that there are still a lot of unfixed Onity locks out there -- hundreds of thousands, if not millions. So when you're traveling this holiday season, be sure to check your hotel room lock and always use the safe.

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