Watching TV Is Dangerous

I am not talking about humans.

But TV-sets might threaten other devices in the smart home; this was a recent puzzle submitted by a blog reader.

Two unrelated devices / services met on the user’s local computer network:

  • IP-TV provided by a large German telco.
  • a data logger for monitoring the heating system.

This user had one of the solutions in place that I mentioned in my previous post on data logging: The logger BL-NET connects to the controller UVR1611 via CAN bus, and to the computer network via ethernet, and it acts as a ‘CAN-ethernet gateway’ to allow for logging data to database server on the network, hosting the application UVR Data Logger Pro.

Data Logger BL-NET, with ethernet, CAN, and USB interfaces (My attempt at 'organic tech product photography.)

Data Logger BL-NET, with ethernet, field bus, and USB interfaces (My attempt at ‘organic tech product photography’.)

The issue: Every time the user turned on the TV, BL-NET suddenly refused to work – communicating its predicament via a red LED. The IP-TV did not use up all the band width; so my suspicion was that the TV (or TV service) sends a network packet that the logger does not like; perhaps a special – sci-fi-like – unicast or broadcast message. Or any of the parties involved does not strictly comply with standards. Or standards might be ambiguous.

It would have been interesting to do network analysis and trace the network traffic and spot that packet of death.The BL-NET product had been superseded by its successor – called C.M.I. – Control and Monitoring Interface – which has better out-of-the box logging, cloud support etc.. The open source UVR Data Logger Pro does not yet speak CMI’s protocol so I understand that BL-NET users do not want to change their solution immediately. But it is unlikely that BL-NET will get firmware updates, and it is very unlikely that a large internet services provider will change its IP-TV communications protocol.

My suggestion was to shield the logger from packets sent by the TV – by tucking BL-NET away in its private subnet – using a spare internet router or the sniffer-router PC I had described in Network Sniffing for Everyone:

The ‘spare’ internet router was placed behind the main internet router, connecting its ‘WAN’ port to the main LAN, and BL-NET was connected to a LAN port of this second router.  If the router is a PC with sniffer software this configuration would also allow for researching the evil packet.

This did the trick – BL-NET did not die of TV’s packets anymore!

In order to avoid running yet another box consuming electrical power, one might also…

  • add another network interface to the the UVR Data Logger Pro database server and use this one as that router.
  • replace the internet router by one that can be configured for more than one virtual LAN (in case the current one does not have this option).
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H0812-0031-001, Werbung, RFT Color 20, Fernseher

At that time, TV-sets did not yet jeopardize the integrity of other devices in the dumb home. Ad for color TV set, 1969. (Bundesarchiv – German national archive, Wikimedia)