Vulnerabilities / Threats
07:20 PM

'Thingularity' Triggers Security Warnings

The Internet of Things is creating 50 billion Internet-connected devices. Who is going to keep them updated and secure?

9 Notorious Hackers Of 2013
9 Notorious Hackers Of 2013
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

The Internet of Things is a security nightmare waiting to happen.

Part of the challenge is scale. By 2020, predicts Cisco, 50 billion different objects will be connected to the Internet, creating an Internet of Things market worth $19 trillion.

But at what cost? Indeed, the problem with the impending "thingularity" -- as some technology pundits describe the current rush to connect everything to the Internet -- is that we lack a way to keep billions of consumer devices updated with the latest security patches or firmware.

Theoretically, securing all of these devices is possible. But to date, how many device manufacturers have excelled at automatically nuking the bugs that inevitably turn up in the code running on the chips powering their devices -- bugs that attackers could use to gain access to enterprise or consumer networks? "This stuff is embedded in silicon, and a flaw in software is hard enough to fix," said Gus Hunt, former CTO of CIA, during a panel discussion last month in San Francisco. "How are you going to fix flaws in silicon that people figure out how to exploit on 100, 200, 300 billion entry points [into networks], not counting the 600 billion phones in the world?"

[How connected will future vehicles be? Read Internet Of Things Meets Cars: Security Threats Ahead.]

Currently, for example, ATM manufacturer NCR says that of the world's 2.2 million ATMs, 95% still run an embedded version of Windows XP. According to the American Bankers Association, the vast majority of the 440,000 ATMs in the United States are likewise running XP. The concern is whether those devices are running the latest, patched version of embedded Windows XP, or up-to-date antivirus signatures. "Nobody should assume that XP systems that are in use today are even current," says Jeffrey Man, a former Payment Card Industry (PCI) Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) who now works for Tenable Network Security.

Even vendors that make information security products haven't solved the challenge of keeping Internet-connected consumer devices up-to-date. Researchers at security firm Tripwire, for example, recently studied the 50 top-selling routers on Amazon and found that at least 74% were vulnerable to previously disclosed attacks, or bugs the researchers found with scant effort.

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

Simply releasing patches for these vulnerable devices, however, isn't good enough to secure them. In a separate study, Tripwire found that 68% of surveyed consumers didn't know how to update their wireless router's firmware. Fast forward: What happens when they're faced with critical updates for their baby monitors, webcams, door locks, and home automation systems? Although the widely reported incident of a fridge being turned into a spam cannon has been debunked -- turns out the fridge was merely on the same network as a compromised device -- it is technically possible for appliances to "attack."

Unless Internet-connected devices can be patched in a deliberate and reliable manner, consumer goods could be abused for nefarious purposes. Just as with poorly secured PHP servers, insecure Internet-connected consumer systems could be used to gain entry to corporate networks; as servers for launching distributed denial-of-service, spam, and phishing attacks; or as places to dump stolen credit cards and personally identifiable information.

Thanks to widespread code reuse, furthermore, when vulnerabilities get found in one manufacturer's device, the same bugs often are present in similar types of devices built by their competitors, meaning all of them would need to be patched, and quickly.

To date, however, even when consumer device vendors do push patches -- and that's not a given -- they lack the mechanisms for delivery. They must discover all vulnerable devices, establish a tamper-proof channel for delivering an update, and finally, flash the firmware and verify that the update was successful.

As this suggests, where "smart" devices are concerned, many parts of the Internet of Things security equation have yet to be worked out. At last month's RSA conference in San Francisco, for example, panel moderator Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, posed the following question to the audience about the Internet of Things: "Wouldn't the update process become a new vulnerability?"

"That is a huge issue," responded penetration expert and SANS instructor Ed Skoudis. But he noted that similar challenges have been solved in recent years, for example by the smart meter industry, which found a way to address the challenge of securely pushing firmware updates to meters.

"We need a similar kind of thing for embedded consumer devices, where you can add new firmware to the device, where it pulls periodically, because it's likely connected to the Internet," Skoudis said. "In fact, I think there's a huge business opportunity here for some enterprising entrepreneur to come up with a solution that they could then sell to all these other companies that are then building these products."

The NSA leak showed that one rogue insider can do massive damage. Use these three steps to keep your information safe from internal threats. Also in the Stop Data Leaks issue of Dark Reading: Technology is critical, but corporate culture also plays a central role in stopping a big breach. (Free registration required.)

Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014. View Full Bio

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