Digital signage is rapidly becoming the standard for retail outlets and various commercial enterprises. The time and money a business can invest in single-use hard signs and static pictures is no longer competitive against active sign systems that far outperform static displays in content, and versatility. The cost for a business to purchase new single-use signage because of a simple price change quickly becomes prohibitive, especially in a rapidly evolving environment and tight profit margins. The time required to design, produce and deploy single-use hard displays also throws an extra burden on the business.

Thus, digital signage which can be quickly changed and even programmed to alter content dependent on time of day or other factors makes single-use displays obsolete. The installation and cost of an electronically controlled display has come down so much that the hardware alone is competitive against single-use signage. This trend is clearly apparent if you walk into any fast food outlet, major coffee change, grocery stores and large retail shops.

Electronic displays are also used to display public information, messages, news, advertisement or promotion about a product. If you enter any major transportation hub such as an airport, you are instantly exposed to important data, news, and promotions from electronic signage. Commercial operators can reach a broad audience by placing the display in public places. Electronic displays have the distinct advantage of updating content on the go, giving businesses the flexibility to change them in a rapidly evolving environment.

Electronic display systems have three component; the Digital Media Player (DMP) that plays the media, a Content Management Software (CMS) which is used to construct and upload the media files and playing instructions to the DMP player, and an electronic display to show the content. Most displays are either commercial-off-the-shelf digital TV monitor or a ruggedized version of a digital monitor designed for commercial applications. The monitors can vary in size from full walls down to small 5 or 7 inch sized tablets.

The DMP player is usually a small mini-computer with pre-installed software and a local hard drive to contain the CMS program and content. The two most popular systems in production are Linux and android based software. While many large chains have elected to use the Microsoft Windows operating system, it has quickly become apparent that Windows is not well suited as a commercial display operating system. The frequent intervention of the operating system to seek updates has long been an embarrassing feature inside several fast food chains and retail outlets - as large pop-up menu overlays any content and freezes the system, demanding a physical intervention by a knowledgeable staff member.

The Linux and android based systems can be configured to remain in a stable - no update required - status. This allows the DMP player to continue functioning without system messages disrupting the content on display. This also allows for a computer technician to update the software as needed when the system is maintained during off-hours. Both the android and Linux operating systems require less computing power and disk space than Microsoft Windows thus freeing up capability best used by the application business content being put on display.

It should be noted that several so-called experts in the electronic display industry have declared the use of off-the-shelf operating systems to be inferior to "canned" commercial digital systems designed specifically for electronic signage. There are several big problems with the "canned" solution.

The advantage of not having an off-the-shelf operating system is a falsehood. The fact is that all the pre-loaded closed box solutions are driven by the same off-the-shelf operating system software currently available. The pre-loaded operating system is "canned" inside the hardware usually on an embedded chip that cannot be removed. It is a big mistake to purchase a "canned" commercial system since the operating software is often a down level version of current operating systems and therefore far more vulnerable to hackers than an updated and stable off-the-shelf solution.

The use of pre-loaded "canned" operating system software located in onboard chips has already bitten the DVR and security camera industry hard. Many current security camera DVRs are being sold that run on down-level embedded software vulnerable to being enslaved by hackers. Hackers have used this vulnerability to set up giant "bot" networks of DVRs and then use them for malicious purposes such as spam emails and distribution of porn.

Another issue with pre-loaded systems is that your operation is now directly dependent on the manufacturer not going out of business or changing models. You can often be left with a lump of non-functioning hardware because you can no longer update to operate your electronic displays. This problem is not part of the COTS solution since you can change/update the software and even upgrade or purchase new software utilizing your current hardware investment. Also please note - it is not likely that Linux or android will go away as computer operating systems during the lifetime of your hardware but even if that were to happen - you can always install a new package without having to purchase new and very expensive hardware.

Finally, the claim that the hard chip version is less prone to attack because it uses encrypted data to be decoded for the display is an indicator that the seller really does not understand information security design. In fact, the media application software is performing the security feature and not the canned - pre-set - operating system hardware. Clearly, a better solution is to pick an application CMS software system that uses encryption to protect your content and control commands that can run on any hardware.

Like all other IT solutions, Digital signage can be prone to cyber-attack. If your signage is connected to the Internet, wireless or cellular networks for updates and new content then you can be hacked. Even systems connected to a local Intra-net have vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. Once compromised, a DMP playing an unauthorized video may result in substantial business loss and potential lawsuits. There have been a number of high profile incidents where a signage solution was compromised to play attacker-controlled videos.

For example, a large touchscreen display located in Union Station in Washington D.C., suddenly started showing pornographic videos to passing patrons. The display was hacked to stream videos from a pornographic website, according to a report published by the Washington Post. The display, located outside of Chipotle in the main hall began to stream porn and continued for some time. A few of the passers laughed at the videos while others reacted in horror. After a short period of time, a few of the locals attempted to turn off the display. Finally, an employee from Roti, a fast casual restaurant, eventually approached the display and helped another individual turn it off.

There are three basic components to any CMS system - the CMS command controller (C2), the data server and the DMP Digital Media player. Each system requires security to avoid issues such as the attack described above.

The CMS command controller software should be located on a specific computer system for accessing or managing the CMS application. The system must be patched against latest vulnerabilities and hardened. You need to create an isolated environment to host the CMS application by configuring a strict firewall rule to access the CMS application and associated data servers. You should also harden the servers by restricting access to authorized individuals only. You will need a secure channel to communicate with the server media site such as SSL/TLS channel via secure FTP software.

Access to the DMP media player should also be restricted, in some cases, physically with hardened enclosures. Configure the DMP boot menu with a strong password and ensure the DMP is running on the latest version of software, and all the latest security patches are applied. You should also remove non-essential services and application, disable any memory card slot, disable any USB slot, and disable Blue Tooth access. If the unit is hard wired to the network then also disable the Wi-Fi. Finally, identify the ports required for the communication and close the other unnecessary ports on DMP.

One item often left out of current CMS application software is encryption. Since the content is being downloaded from the data server, select software that uses a secure channel SSL/TLS encrypted file transfer protocol and includes encrypted control commands from your C2 controller. This will restrict access to the DMP player software to only the C2 controller with the appropriate encryption key set. The DMP software should also have any local command and start up settings encrypted to ensure they cannot be tampered with.

By taking a few precautions and looking for the smart solutions you can make your Digital signage secure and profitable.

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