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RoT: The all-powerful Ransomware of Things

FYI, this story is more than a year old

One of the trends that I found most worrying in 2016 was the willingness of some individuals to participate in the following three activities: holding computer systems and data files hostage (ransomware); denying access to data and systems (Distributed Denial of Service or DDoS); and infecting some of the devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT).

Sadly, I think these trends will continue to evolve in 2017 and there is potential for cross-pollination as they do so. For example, using infected IoT devices to extort commercial websites by threatening a DDoS attack, or locking IoT devices in order to charge a ransom – something I like to call “jackware”.

Past and future threats

Abusing information systems to extort money is almost as old as computing itself. Back in 1985, an IT employee at a US insurance company programmed a logic bomb to erase vital records if he was ever fired. Two years later he was – and, accordingly, the bomb erased the records, leading to the first conviction for this type of computer crime.

Malware that used encryption to hold files for ransom was identified in 1989, as David Harley has recounted. In 2011, my colleague Cameron Camp described locking computers for a ransom as “stooping to new lows”.

So how might these elements evolve or merge in 2017? Some people have been referring to 2016 as “The Year of Ransomware” and I'm concerned 2017 could be dubbed “The Year of Jackware”.

Think of jackware as malicious software that seeks to take control of a device, the primary purpose of which is neither data processing nor digital communications. A good example is a “connected car”, as many of today's latest models are described. These cars perform a large amount of data processing and communicating, but their primary purpose is to get you from A to B.

So think of jackware as a specialized form of ransomware. With regular ransomware, such as Locky and CryptoLocker, the malicious code encrypts documents on your computer and demands a ransom to unlock them. The goal of jackware is to lock up a car or other device until you pay up.

Picture this: on one particularly cold and frosty morning I use the car app on my phone to remote start my car from the comfort of the kitchen, but the car does not start. Instead I get a text on my phone telling me I need to hand over X amount of digital currency to re-enable my vehicle. This is what jackware could look like from a victim's point of view. Fortunately, and I stress this: jackware is, as far as I know, still theoretical. It is not yet “in the wild”.

It's not easy to prevent jackware being developed and deployed; especially considering previous examples. We have already seen that a car company can ship more than a million vehicles containing vulnerabilities that could have been abused for jackware: take the Fiat Chrysler Jeep problem that was all over the news in 2015.

An equally serious case was Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' (FCA) apparent lack of planning for vulnerability patching in the vehicle design process. It is one thing to ship a digital product in which ‘holes' are later discovered – in fact, this is pretty much inevitable – but it is a different and more dangerous thing to ship digital products without a quick and secure means of patching those holes.

While most “car hacking” research and discussion centers on technical issues within the vehicle, it is important to realize that a lot of IoT technology relies on a support system that extends well beyond the device itself. We saw this in 2015 with VTech, a player in the Internet of Children's Things (IoCT) space. Weak security on the company's website exposed personal data about children, reminding everyone just how many attack surfaces the IoT creates.

We also saw this infrastructure issue in 2016 when some Fitbit accounts had problems (to be clear, the Fitbit devices themselves were not hacked, and Fitbit seems to take privacy seriously). Also this year, bugs were discovered in the online web app for BMW ConnectedDrive, which connects BMWs to the IoT. You can use the BMW ConnectedDrive to regulate your home's heating, lights, and alarm system from inside your vehicle.

The possibility that the features and settings of an in-vehicle system could be remotely administered through a portal that could be hacked is unsettling to say the least. And reports of vehicular cyber-insecurity keep coming, like this Wi-Fi enabled Mitsubishi, and hacked radios used to steal BMWs, Audis, and Toyotas.

While I originally thought of jackware as an evolution of malicious code targeting vehicles, it was soon clear that this trend could manifest itself more broadly – think “the Ransomware of Things (RoT)”. A chilling story from a city in Finland indicates one direction that this might take (DDoS attack halts heating in Finland in winter). While there was no indication of ransom demands in the reports, it does not take much imagination to see this as the next step. Want us to stop DDoSing the heating system? Pay up!

Stopping the RoT

To stop the IoT becoming home to the RoT, a number of things need to happen; in two different spheres of human activity. First is the technical sphere, where the challenge of implementing security on a vehicular platform is considerable. Traditional security techniques like filtering, encrypting and authenticating can consume costly processing power and bandwidth, adding overhead to systems, some of which need to operate with very low latency. Security techniques like air-gapping and redundancy could potentially contribute significantly to increasing costs of vehicles. And we know that controlling costs has always been critical to car manufacturers, down to the last dollar.

The second sphere in which action against the RoT should be taken is policy and politics. There has been a collective international failure to prevent a thriving criminal infrastructure evolving in cyberspace; one that now threatens every innovation in digital technology you can think of, from self-driving cars to drones; from big data to telemedicine. For example, as alluded to in Challenges and Implications of Cybersecurity Legislation, concerned politicians failed to pass legislation in 2016 that would help secure the smart grid, despite bipartisan support.

To be clear, terms like RoT and jackware are not intended to cause alarm. They symbolize things that could come to pass if we do not do enough in 2017 to prevent them from becoming a reality. So let me end with some positive developments.

First, a variety of government agencies are stepping up their efforts to make the IoT more secure. In 2016 we saw the publication of the Strategic Principles for Securing the Internet of Things from the US Department of Homeland Security, and the NIST Special Publication.

The full title of the latter is Systems Security Engineering Considerations for a Multidisciplinary Approach in the Engineering of Trustworthy Secure Systems. NIST is the National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the US Department of Commerce, and over the years the agency has exerted a positive influence on many aspects of cybersecurity. Hopefully, these efforts – and the many others around the world – will help us make progress in 2017, working towards the goal of securing our digital lives against those who choose to abuse technology to extort us.

Finally, evidence that we might be making some progress – at least in terms of public awareness of the IoT's potential to bring problems as well as perks and productivity gains – comes from a different kind of publication: the results of an ESET consumer survey. Reported under the title of “Our Increasingly Connected Digital Lives” the survey revealed that more than 40% of American adults were not confident that IoT devices are safe and secure. Furthermore, more than half of respondents indicated that privacy and security concerns had discouraged them from purchasing an IoT device.

Could the combination of consumer sentiment and government guidance lead companies to make the IoT more resistant to abuse? We may find out in 2017.

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