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Restricting Flipper is a Zero Accountability Approach to Security: Canadian Government Response to Car Hacking | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #hacker


On February 8, François-Philippe Champagne, the Canadian Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced Canada would ban devices used in keyless car theft. The only device mentioned by name was the Flipper Zero—the multitool device that can be used to test, explore, and debug different wireless protocols such as RFID, NFC, infrared, and Bluetooth.

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While it is useful as a penetration testing device, Flipper Zero is impractical in comparison to other, more specialized devices for car theft. It’s possible social media hype around the Flipper Zero has led people to believe that this device offers easier hacking opportunities for car thieves*. But government officials are also consuming such hype. That leads to policies that don’t secure systems, but rather impedes important research that exposes potential vulnerabilities the industry should fix. Even with Canada walking back on the original statement outright banning the devices, restricting devices and sales to “move forward with measures to restrict the use of such devices to legitimate actors only” is troublesome for security researchers.

This is not the first government seeking to limit access to Flipper Zero, and we have explained before why this approach is not only harmful to security researchers but also leaves the general population more vulnerable to attacks. Security researchers may not have the specialized tools car thieves use at their disposal, so more general tools come in handy for catching and protecting against vulnerabilities. Broad purpose devices such as the Flipper have a wide range of uses: penetration testing to facilitate hardening of a home network or organizational infrastructure, hardware research, security research, protocol development, use by radio hobbyists, and many more. Restricting access to these devices will hamper development of strong, secure technologies.

When Brazil’s national telecoms regulator Anatel refused to certify the Flipper Zero and as a result prevented the national postal service from delivering the devices, they were responding to media hype. With a display and controls reminiscent of portable video game consoles, the compact form-factor and range of hardware (including an infrared transceiver, RFID reader/emulator, SDR and Bluetooth LE module) made the device an easy target to demonize. While conjuring imagery of point-and-click car theft was easy, citing examples of this actually occurring proved impossible. Over a year later, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single instance of a car being stolen with the device. The number of cars stolen with the Flipper seems to amount to, well, zero (pun intended). It is the same media hype and pure speculation that has led Canadian regulators to err in their judgment to ban these devices.

Still worse, law enforcement in other countries have signaled their own intentions to place owners of the device under greater scrutiny. The Brisbane Times quotes police in Queensland, Australia: “We’re aware it can be used for criminal means, so if you’re caught with this device we’ll be asking some serious questions about why you have this device and what you are using it for.” We assume other tools with similar capabilities, as well as Swiss Army Knives and Sharpie markers, all of which “can be used for criminal means,” will not face this same level of scrutiny. Just owning this device, whether as a hobbyist or professional—or even just as a curious customer—should not make one the subject of overzealous police suspicions.

It wasn’t too long ago that proficiency with the command line was seen as a dangerous skill that warranted intervention by authorities. And just as with those fears of decades past, the small grain of truth embedded in the hype and fears gives it an outsized power. Can the command line be used to do bad things? Of course. Can the Flipper Zero assist criminal activity? Yes. Can it be used to steal cars? Not nearly as well as many other (and better, from the criminals’ perspective) tools. Does that mean it should be banned, and that those with this device should be placed under criminal suspicion? Absolutely not.

We hope Canada wises up to this logic, and comes to view the device as just one of many in the toolbox that can be used for good or evil, but mostly for good.

*Though concerns have been raised about Flipper Devices’ connection to the Russian state apparatus, no unexpected data has been observed escaping to Flipper Devices’ servers, and much of the dedicated security and pen-testing hardware which hasn’t been banned also suffers from similar problems.

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