Lenovo stops Superfish preloads and issues advisory


Lenovo has seen calmer weeks. News sites in droves rang chimes and sirens over an adware program on some Lenovo models escalating to concerns about the potential risk of a Man in the Middle threat. Lenovo has been attempting to meet the storm head-on and has stopped preloads of the program called Superfish. In a statement, Lenovo said, "In our effort to enhance our user experience, we pre-installed a piece of third-party software, Superfish (based in Palo Alto, CA), on some of our consumer notebooks. We thought the product would enhance the shopping experience, as intended by Superfish. It did not meet our expectations or those of our customers. In reality, we had customer complaints about the software."

Lenovo went on to discuss their response. "We acted swiftly and decisively once these concerns began to be raised. We apologize for causing any concern to any users for any reason – and we are always trying to learn from experience and improve what we do and how we do it. We stopped the preloads beginning in January. We shut down the server connections that enable the also in January, and we are providing online resources to help users remove this software." Superfish was previously included on some consumer notebook products shipped between September 2014 and February 2015, said Lenovo. The company also said that the software has never been installed on any enterprise product—servers or storage—and these products were in no way impacted. Also, Lenovo said it never installed this software on ThinkPad notebooks nor Lenovo desktops or smartphones.

Superfish is a Palo Alto, California-based company which, with patented technology, developed a visual search engine. Writing in Bloomberg, Jordan Robertson said, "Superfish uses image-recognition algorithms that watch where users point on their screens and suggest ads based on the images they're looking at." The problem, said security watchers, is that it could potentially expose users to unauthorized activity monitoring. Robertson made the point that in general pre-installed software poses security and privacy concerns because questionable behavior is hard to detect and programs may be difficult to uninstall.

Lenovo's own security advisory issued the potential impact as "Man-in-the-Middle Attack" and called the severity "High." Lenovo said it ordered the pre-load removal in January and that "We will not preload this software in the future."

The advisory's description was of "Superfish intercept HTTP(S) traffic using a self-signed root certificate. This is stored in the local certificate store and provides a security concern."

On Friday, PCWorld senior editor Brad Chacos had the good news. "Bravo!" ran the headline to his story. "Windows Defender update fully removes Lenovo's dangerous Superfish malware." Chacos reported that Microsoft updated its Windows Defender to eradicate both the adware itself and the certificate potentially allowing encrypted web traffic to be compromised. Chacos said that a Microsoft spokesperson confirmed that "Microsoft security software detects and removes the Superfish software from Lenovo devices." Ed Bott in ZDNet on Friday similarly reported that Microsoft released the latest definitions for its Windows Defender software, included "as a standard feature on all Windows 8.x PCs. The new definitions, which are installed automatically, detect and remove the offending app and the certificate."

Update: As of Saturday, Chris Duckett, reporting in ZDNet, said that Lenovo has offered a removal tool.

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User comments

Feb 21, 2015
Anything that is built to sideload ads into HTTPS protected connections, such as your online banking website, should raise alarms for any competent software engineer.

There's no excuse. Lenovo knew exactly what they were doing and were simply banking on nobody noticing.

Feb 22, 2015
In our effort to enhance our user experience . . .

"Enhancing the user experience" is one of the great euphemisms of the era. Synonymous with something about users being bent over a barrel. Reviews for computers, phones, etc. should include some measure of the amount of crap-ware installed gratis.

On self-signed certificates: this should be made technically hard to do, inconvenient. Whether done through intransigence or stupidity, Superfish is paying a painful price now. Self-signed certs only exist because it is relatively so much more difficult to get a bona-fide certificate. Making availability of real certificates simple, trivial, no-cost would fix the problem.

Feb 22, 2015
Bundled software can be painful but the stupidity of Lenovo installing malware deserves an award.

Adware that spies on user activity and behaves in the way described is clearly malware. As the Sony rootkit shows, there are long memories for this sort of mistake and years later I'm still filling people in on the Sony rootkit whenever I know they are considering a Sony purchase. Now there is a Lenovo story to tell.

Smart phones have allowed ad supported apps to become common and accepted. When ads a just displayed, with no spying or leaking of personal data, this might be reasonable. However, they lose any legitimacy when they spy on us, monitor our activities, the sites we visit, where we are, the content of our communications, etc.

Manufacturers generally have a commercial incentive to bundle software. Purchasers need to be able to trust that they are not compromising our security in the process. Once trust is lost, it is not easily recovered.

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