Approaching the Internet of Things Security

As already discussed in one of our earlier newsletters, Internet of Things as a concept is by no means new – various smart devices capable of communicating with each other and their operators have been used in manufacturing, automotive industry, healthcare and even at home. These “Things” range from popular consumer products for home automation to enterprise devices like RFID tags all the way through to industrial sensors controlling critical processes like manufacturing or power generation. There is actually very little in common between them other than the reliance on standard network protocols for communicating over the existing Internet. Oh, and the complete lack of security.

Unfortunately, for decades, security for most embedded hardware vendors has always been an afterthought. Companies designing consumer products were more interested in bringing their products to the market as fast as possible and industrial control system vendors seemingly still live in an alternate universe where industrial networks are isolated from the Internet. In our reality, however, things have already changed dramatically. Simply because of the sheer scale and interoperability (at least on the network protocol level) that define modern IoT, it introduces a substantial number of new risks and attack surfaces.

First, the vast number of IoT devices out there makes it increasingly difficult not just to control and manage them, but also to update them if a vulnerability is discovered (if the device in question supports updates at all). Also, proliferation of connected devices greatly increases the chances for hackers to compromise a less reliable device and use it to navigate around the network to attack other devices.

Another obvious challenge is that the safety issue becomes much more critical. If a medical device like a pacemaker or an insulin pump is hacked, a patient’s life is at stake, not just his health record. A compromised connected car can cause traffic accidents. An attack on a piece of industrial equipment can cause critical disruptions or lead to industrial disasters (and even if no lives are lost, financial and legal consequences will be huge anyway).

Identity and privacy implications of the IoT proliferation can be massive as well. The information that can be leaked or stolen from unprotected smart sensors is much more sensitive than, say, your email account. Health records, location and habits history, home surveillance – all this data has to be protected accordingly. Solving the identity management challenge on the global scale is a separate and very daunting task, which vendors are only beginning to tackle.

However, although security experts have long realized that IoT has no room for weak security, this mindset is yet to catch on among the IoT manufacturers. Many of them either have no expertise in security or cannot afford spending much on it (this is especially true for consumer products built upon existing commodity hardware from third party manufacturers). Lack of established standards and protocols is another inhibiting factor.

So, where do we even begin to address these problems? On one hand, it seems that IoT device manufactures are primarily responsible for making their products more secure. Security by Design and Privacy by Design must become mandatory parts of their design processes. Vendors have to incorporate security features into their solutions on all levels from device firmware to service provider infrastructures to training their employees accordingly. They also must minimize data collection and store only the information that’s required for their devices to function and ensure that all applicable privacy regulations are addressed. Finally, they must provide continuous security updates and patches for the whole lifecycle of their products. Obviously, they must be both incentivized by government agencies for complying with these requirements and punished for violating them. They should also look to join various industry groups and technology alliances to get access to the latest standards and best practices.

However, it’s also obvious that we cannot rely on the vendors alone to address this massive and multifaceted problem. Designing a proper security infrastructure for modern “hyperconnected” businesses requires a holistic approach, where various security, privacy-enhancing and identity management solutions are operating in accord, orchestrated and monitored from a central management console. Emergence of new standards and open APIs in the IoT field to support such scenarios is therefore critical. Providing flexible identity management and fine-grained access control is especially important here, and many existing IAM tools are yet to be adapted to support the sheer scale and inherently heterogeneous nature of the Internet of Things.

It is also worth stressing that solving the IoT security challenge isn’t limited by addressing technology issues. To fulfill the often conflicting requirements and expectations of all parties involved, a lot of legal and liability issues have to be solved as well. And there are many more parties involved than many expect. For connected vehicles, for example, we have to think not just about relationships between car manufacturers and drivers, but also about insurance companies, auto mechanics, environmental protection agencies and, of course, the police.

Last but not least, we always have to think about consumer’s choice and consent. Giving users control over collection and sharing of their sensitive personal data by IoT devices can be not just a great business enabler for device manufacturers, but also a strong security and privacy-enhancing factor.

In the end, the Internet of Things is here to stay. It provides a great number of new opportunities, but introduces quite a number of new risks. These risks can only be addressed by the combined effort of IoT device manufacturers, “traditional” IT security and IAM vendors, technology alliances and standards bodies, governments and end users. Only together we can ensure that “Industry 4.0” won’t one day turn into “Skynet 1.0”.


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