Jason Lackey
Solutions Marketing

IoT: The Internet of Threats

October 16, 2017 by Jason Lackey

I for one welcome our new robotic overlords.When I reflect on trends in networking and computing, particularly in areas like AI and IoT, the old adage “just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should” comes to mind. We have famous detractors, like Elon Musk, building on years (or even decades) of fear – remember Hal (I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that) refusing to open the pod bay doors or the Cylons in open revolt?

While we may not be in immediate danger of AI taking over (indeed, some portrayals of AI are a little light on the Intelligence side of things, such as this take on voice activated elevators), autonomous drones and other war machines should be enough to give anyone pause. Beyond AI and whether or not Alexa, Cortana or Siri are going to rise up and turn on you (or order dollhouses on Amazon for you), there are some things about IoT – the Internet of Things, that probably deserve another look.

IoT – a Fundamental Shift

One of the things about IoT that is probably a bigger deal than many people realize is the fact that many of the companies now cranking out IoT devices have been in the hardware space for a long time but that things like networking and software are relatively new. This impacts things in a lot of different ways.

Ship it!

In hardware, makers are used to tremendous pressure – particularly pressure on margins and pressure on time to market. It can never be made cheap enough and it can never ship fast enough. This is particularly true in the consumer space, which not only faces normal timing challenges but also things like the need to be available for Christmas, which actually means needs to ship in time to be on shelves for Black Friday.

For an organization used to making washing machines, lightbulbs or children’s plush toys, many considerations of the IoT-ification of things may not be obvious. For example, patches and updates. In the world of networking and general compute, it is a given that software is a big part of things and that software, both OS and apps running on top of it, will need updates to fix bugs and address security issues.

Updating a Lightbulb? Really?

So what happens when flaws turn up in the ZigBee implementation in your connected lightbulbs? In the best of all possible worlds, the manufacturer issues a firmware update and you can patch, addressing the flaw. This of course requires that the maker actually thought about things like software and the updating thereof.

In some cases, it is pretty clear that the maker was focused on getting things done quick and dirty and never found the time to go back again and clean up things like sending userids and passwords in plain text over a not very secure Wi-Fi network.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. We are working with some IoT makers who are doing very comprehensive testing of their network enabled products. They not only test for things like basic Wi-Fi interoperability and function, but also make sure that their devices can be updated such that when issues come up they can be addressed rather than allowed to fester.

On the Road Again

As automotive networking and communications busses become more capable, they also introduce more risk. In the past, there was nothing to hack in a car and if there was, it wasn’t connected to anything. Now, with CAN bus doing a lot of the control work on a typical car’s internal network, it is possible to hack things. You can disable brakes, make steering input, control the engine, turn on the wipers and do just about anything else with the car that involves some sort of electric or electronic control. Combine CAN bus with wireless communications and command capabilities (Hello, OnStar?) and things start to look real interesting for the bad guys and potentially challenging for the good guys.

The Galactica Solution

In the SyFy TV show Battlestar Galactica, the good guys were up against an evil robot army bent on exterminating the humans. Being robots, the bad guys were fairly clever at hacking, which meant that the good guys turned to analogue technology in their Battlestars – the equivalent of space traveling aircraft carriers.

While going all analogue is one option, for most it is not really a viable one for a variety of reasons, but mainly cost and convenience. However, even if you don’t go analogue, comprehensive testing can certainly help. Not only will auto makers want to test the LTE/5G uplink capabilities of their vehicles in addition to Wi-Fi and other more local technologies, they will also need to test communications on their CAN bus networks and verify not only proper communications but also ensure that security is properly implemented.

To IoT or Not IoT…

There is a lot of temptation to add features and functionality to products and the current feature du jour is network enablement, regardless of benefit or risk. If you as a consumer are thinking about buying some IoT gear, great, but do a little research and make sure that you are not introducing a huge, gaping back door into your home network. You should also make sure that the product you are looking at can be updated and check to see if the manufacturer has actually done updates.

As an equipment maker, you have the obligation to make sure that not only does the network connectivity you are bolting on to a product works, but you also need to make sure that whatever you are implementing is implemented in a safe and sane manner. No plain text passwords or any of those other things that drive infosec people crazy. It’s tough, because it is easy to assume that security through obscurity is going to protect you and it most simply will not.

There is the additional challenge of having to do things like provide updates and how to handle things like end of life products. 50 years from now, you may no longer be working, but some of the internet enabled refrigerators your company has shipped may still be around.

Anyway, while there are more questions than answers at this point, hopefully those who are building IoT devices are considering some of these questions and factoring them into production and update plans.