“A Stab in the Back” of IoT Security

Following the topic of the Internet of Things security covered in our latest Analysts’ View newsletter, I’d like to present a perfect example of how IoT device manufacturers are blatantly ignoring the most basic security best practices in their products. As an Austrian information security company SEC Consult revealed in their report, millions of embedded devices around the world, including routers and modems, IP phones and cameras and other network products, are reusing a small number of hardcoded SSH keys and SSL certificates.

According to SEC Consult, they have analyzed firmware images (usually freely available for download from manufacturers’ websites) of over 4000 various devices and were able to extract more than 580 unique private keys. Remember, a private key is the most critical component of any public key infrastructure and according to the most basic security best practices has to be protected from falling into the wrong hands by all means available. After that, the researches correlated their findings with the data from internet-wide scans, again publicly available to anyone interested, and found out that a handful of those hardcoded keys are used in over 4 million hosts directly connected to the Internet.

Although similar researches has been done earlier, this time the company was able to expose concrete products and vendors responsible, which include both small regional manufacturers and large international companies like Cisco, Huawei or ZyXEL. These devices are deployed by large internet service providers around the world, exposing millions of their subscribers to possible attacks.

It can be speculated what the exact reason for a particular manufacturer to include a hardcoded key into their product would be, but in the end it all boils down to blindly reusing sample code supplied by manufacturers of network chips or boards that power these devices. Whether because of incompetence or pure negligence, these “default” keys or certificates end up being included into device firmware images.

Since hackers would have private keys at hand, they could launch different types of attacks, including impersonation, man-in-the-middle or passive decryption attacks. Although the researchers rightfully point out that exploiting modems or routers from the internet is difficult and mostly limited to “evil ISPs”, one has to realize that SEC Consult’s research has only revealed the tip of an iceberg, and their findings do not present an exceptional case but rather a typical approach of many IoT vendors towards security. As more and more smart devices are deployed everywhere – in hospitals, connected cars and traffic lights or in manufacturing plants and power grids, the risk of exposing these devices to key reuse attacks increases dramatically, along with the severity of possible consequences of such attacks.

So, what can and must be done to prevent these attacks in the future? SEC Consult’s report outlines the steps that vendors and ISPs have to make, and they are pretty obvious. Device vendors have to stop including hardcoded keys into their firmware, generating unique keys on the first boot instead. ISPs should ensure that the devices they install have remote management disabled. End users should change keys in their devices (which, by the way, requires certain technical skills and in many devices is not permitted at all).

However, the bigger question isn’t what’s needed to fix the problem, but how to force vendors and internet providers to change their current business processes. They have not cared about security for years, why would they suddenly change their mind and start investing into it? There is no single answer for this question, and in any case a combined effort of government agencies, security experts and the end users themselves is needed to break the current trend. Only when vendors realize that building their products upon the Security by Design principle not only saves them from massive fines and legal problems, but in fact makes their products more competitive on the market, can we expect to see positive changes. Until then, IoT security will remain simply a fictional concept.


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