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Opinion piece: How you can bolster cybersecurity in the IoT era

By Ashton Young
Fri 1 Dec 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Article by Thomas Fischer, Global Security Advocate at Digital Guardian

We are entering into the era of the IoT. In fact, Gartner recently predicted that IoT technology will be present in 95% of electronic products for new product designs by 2020. The rapid gravitation towards the IoT has come at a cost, however, and the IoT has already earned itself a reputation for poor security. In the ferociously competitive technology sector, the urgency to be first to market with affordable IoT devices has resulted in many organisations overlooking even some of the most basic security principles in favour of fast development cycles.

On top of this, the combination of overly rigorous cost controls and the drive towards user-friendliness leaves even less room for robust security measures. Many IoT devices also use extremely cheap processing units, equivalent to something you might buy back in the 1970s but much smaller. These kinds of devices are often either memory constrained or ‘input’ constrained, allowing for simple functionality, but leaving little to no room for future updates or patches.

With the lifespan of these devices often expected to exceed ten years, this creates a very serious problem. As security evolves and new threats become apparent, IoT devices can become a major security risk if they cannot be patched.

Fortunately, this growing threat isn’t going unnoticed. Technology groups such as I am the Cavalry are now driving and advising governments on what needs to be done to build more secure IoT solutions. The IoT Security Foundation is also driving to build standards and enlist companies to work together in order to improve the overall security of devices. Furthermore, the GSM Association (GSMA) has produced a set of guidelines around security best practices for IoT devices.

For manufacturers, developers and users of IoT devices, associations such as the GSMA have highlighted several key areas where security must be improved. The following eight areas are prime examples of these:

1) Device authentication and identity: Proper and secure authentication with individual device identification allows a secure connection to be built between the devices themselves and the backend control systems. If every device has its own unique identity, organisations can quickly confirm that the device communicating is indeed the one it claims to be. This requires individual device identification based on solutions such as Public Key Infrastructure (PKI).

2) Physical security: Physical security is paramount. Integrating tamper-proofing measures into device components should be at the forefront of all developers’ minds as it ensures they cannot be decoded. Additionally, ensuring device data related to authentication, identification codes and account information is erased if a device becomes compromised will help to prevent private data from being used maliciously.

3) Encryption: When utilising IoT solutions, organisations must ensure traffic flowing between devices and backend servers is properly encrypted. Ensuring that commands are encrypted and looking at command integrity via signing or a strong encoding is vital. IoT devices should also encrypt any sensitive user data collected as well for further data security.

4) Firmware updates: In the rush to get new IoT products to market, manufacturers sometimes build devices with no firmware update capability at all. Creating a consistent process that enables flexible firmware deployment over time allows for the creation of new products whilst ensuring important security fixes are distributed universally across existing product lines.

5) Secure coding: IoT developers must implement secure coding practices and apply them to the device as part of the software build process. Focusing on QA and vulnerability identification/remediation as part of the development lifecycle will streamline security efforts while helping to mitigate risk.

6) Close backdoors: Building devices with a backdoor inside, whether for surveillance or law enforcement purposes, has become commonplace. However, this practice compromises the integrity and security of the end user. Manufacturers must ensure that no malicious code or backdoor is introduced and the device’s UDID is not copied, monitored or captured. Doing so will guarantee that when the device registers online, the process is not captured or vulnerable to interception, surveillance or unlawful monitoring. 

7) Network segmentation: If a network is partitioned into secure segments, then – should an IoT device become compromised – its segment can be isolated from the rest of the network. If a path to the Internet is required, then that could be granted, and if the device is somehow breached, the devices in that segment are the only ones impacted. The zone can be quarantined and remediation steps can be taken without incurring risk to other systems.

8) Understand the business need: Security teams can be so focused on reducing risk that they sometimes do not align well with business needs. A good security team will assess business requests around IoT and think ‘what is the challenge or problem that the business is trying to solve?’. Without this mindset, security teams are liable to propose a way to secure the IoT devices that may actually reduce the business benefit. Security teams that work alongside the business, rather than against it will build more effective, more secure IoT infrastructure. 

In 2018 we will, unfortunately, continue to see IoT devices being compromised by malicious parties. This is the harsh reality of having so many devices already out in the wild that are virtually impossible to update. We are also likely to see more DDoS attacks stemming from compromised devices and even the appearance of IoT focused ransomware.

However, all is not lost. Initiatives to improve IoT security standards are already gathering momentum, and it should not be long before manufacturers start to make amends in relation to the key areas above, as well as other aspects of IoT devices. Over time, the IoT will become more robust, particularly as existing vulnerable devices reach their end of life and are replaced by more secure equivalents.

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