Why no “S” in IoT?

My friend, Chris Romeo, a security architect and innovator for whom I have deep respect and from whom I learn a great deal just posted a blog about the lack of security (“S”) in Internet of Things (IoT), “The S In IoT Stands For Security“.

Of course, I agree with Chris about his three problem areas:

  1. Lack of industry knowledge
  2. Developer’s lack of security knowledge and understanding
  3. Time to market pressure, particularly as it exists for startups

I don’t think one can argue with these; in fact, these problems have been and continue to be pervasive, well beyond and before the advent of IoT. Still, I would like to add two more points to Chris’ explanation of the problem space, if I may add to what I hope will be an ongoing and lively conversation within the security industry?

First, IoT products are not just being produced at startups; big players are building IoT, too. Where we place sensors and for what purposes is a universe of different solutions, all the way from moisture sensors in soil (for farming), through networkable household gadgets like light bulbs and thermostats, to the activity monitor on a human’s wrist, to wired up athletes, to the by now famous, mirai botnet camera.

Differing use cases involve varying types and levels (postures) of security. It is a mistake to lump these all together.

When at Intel, I personally reviewed any number of IoT projects that involved significant security involvement, analysis, and implementation. I’m going to guess that most of the major activity monitoring server-side components should have had quite a lot of basic web and cloud security in-built? At least for some products, interaction between the device (IoT sensor) and any intermediary device, like a smart phone or personal computer, has also been given some significant security thought – and it turns out, that this is an area where security has been improving as device capabilities have grown.

It’s hard to make an all out statement on the state of IoT security, though I believe that there are troublesome areas, as Chris points out, most especially for startups. Another problem area continues to be medical devices, which have tended to lag badly because they’ve been produced with more open architectures, as has been presented at security conferences time and again. Then, there’s the Jeep Wrangler remote control hack.

Autonomous autos are going to push the envelop for security, since it’s a nexus between machine learning, big (Big BIG) data, consumer convenience, and physical safety. The companies that put the cars together are generally larger companies, though many of these do not lead in the cyber security space. Naturally, the technology that goes into the cars comes from a plethora of concerns, huge, mid-sized, tiny, and startup. Security consciousness and delivery will be a range from clueful to completely clueless across that range. A repeating problem area for security continues to be complex integrations where differing security postures are pasted together without sufficient thought about how interactions are changing the overall security of the integrated system.

Given the foregoing, I believe that it’s important to qualify IoT somewhat, since context, use case, and semantics/structure matter.

Next, and perhaps more important (save the most important for last?) are the economics of development and delivery. This is highlighted best by the mirai camera: it’s not just startups who have pressure. In the camera manufacturer’s case (as I understand it) they have near zero economic incentive to deliver a secure product. And this is after the mirai attack!

What’s going on here? Importantly, the camaras are still being sold. The access point with a well-known, default password is presumably still on the market, though new cameras may have been remediated. Security people may tear their hair out with an emphatic, “Don’t ever do that!” But, consider the following, please.

  • Product occurs distant (China, in this case) from the consumption of the product
  • Production and use occur within different (vastly different, in this case) legal jurisdictions
  • The incentive is to produce product as cheaply as possible
  • Eventual users do not buy “security” (whatever that means to the customer) from the manufacturer
  • The eventual user buys from manufacturer’s customer or that customer’s customer (multiple entities between consumer and producer)

Where’s the incentive to even consider security in the above picture? I don’t see it.

Instead, I see, as a Korean partner of a company that I once worked for said about acquiring a TCP/IP stack, “Get Internet for free?” – meaning of course, use an open source network stack that could be downloaded from the Internet with no cost.

The economics dictate that, manufacturer download an operating system, usually some Linux variant. Add an working driver, perhaps based upon an existing one? Maybe there’s a configuration thingy tied to a web server that perhaps, came with the Linux. Cheap. Fast. Let’s make some money.

We can try to regulate this up, down, sideways, but I do not believe that this will change much. Big companies will do the right thing, and charge more proportionately. Startups will try to work around the regulations. Companies operating under different jurisdictions or from places where adherence is not well policed or can be bribed away will continue to deliver default passwords to an open source operating system which delivers a host ripe for misuse (which is what mirai turns out to be).

Until we shift the economics of the situation, nothing will change. In the case of mirai, since the consumer of the botnet camera was likely not affected during that attack, she or he will not be applying pressure to the camera manufacturer, either. The manufacturer has little incentive to change; the consumer has little pressure to enforce via buying choices.

By the way, I don’t see consumers becoming more security knowledgeable. Concerned about digital security? Sure. Willing to change the default password on a camera or a wifi router? Many consumers don’t even go that far.

We’re in a bind here; the outlook does not look rosy to me. I open to suggestions.

Thanks, Chris, for furthering this discussion.

cheers,

/brook

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