New IoT Security Bill: Third Time's the Charm?

The latest bill to set security standards for connected devices sold to the US government has fewer requirements, instead leaving recommendations to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.



For the third time in as many years, lawmakers have introduced a bill that would require Internet of Things (IoT) products sold by federal contractors and vendors to abide by government guidelines to ensure a baseline of cybersecurity.

The current bill, supported by members of both parties and known as the Internet of Things Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2019, eschews specific recommendations and instead calls for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop security guidelines for IoT devices sold to the US government. 

The hope is that such legislation, if signed into law, would mean more secure IoT equipment overall, including in the consumer and commercial sector.

It is the latest attempt to convince manufacturers of connected devices to take security more seriously. The original legislation, known as the Internet of Things Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017, was introduced after the Mirai botnet targeted Internet infrastructure provider Dyn and disrupted a wide variety of other Internet services in October 2016. Mirai compromised weakly secured digital video recorders and connected cameras, creating a botnet of more than 100,000 endpoints that leveled a series of distriubted denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks on Dyn

The original bipartisan IoT security legislation required that any device sold to the US government followed basic, well-established cybersecurity norms, such as no hard-coded passwords and being easily patchable. Even so, the legislation failed to overcome industry resistance.

The new IoT security legislation will likely result in the same requirements, because the original bill had only focused on common-sense, or "evergreen," guidelines, says Josh Corman, chief security officer for PTC, a maker of industrial IoT solutions.

"I think we are going to end up in a similar place, but later," he says. "So it means more exposure to threats and less secure devices being brought to market."

The bill is all about using the government's buying power as an incentive for companies to create more secure connected devices, Sen. John Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.

"While I'm excited about their life-changing potential, I'm also concerned that many IoT devices are being sold without appropriate safeguards and protections in place, with the device market prioritizing convenience and price over security," he said.

The current bill tasks NIST with creating requirements for federal agencies that consider the secure development, identity management, patching and configuration management of IoT devices. In addition, NIST is also tasked with developing recommendations on the management and use of IoT devices by March 31, 2020.

By removing the exact requirements from the legislation, lawmakers have eased the way to passage, says Nathan Owens, an attorney and partner with the law firm of Newmeyer & Dillion, who focuses on risk management and cybersecurity.

For lawmakers under pressure from the industry, "making it broader and going to an organization like NIST is easy to get behind," he says. "It makes the (passage of the) legislation really easy and palatable."

Within six months of the passage of the bill, NIST will be required to issue a report on the impact connected devices will have on federal operations and how agencies can mitigate cybersecurity risk. In addition, the bill specifically calls for NIST to develop coordinated vulnerability disclosure guidelines.

Finally, the bill would require the Office of Management and Budget to issue guidelines for each federal agency, following the NIST report and creation of recommendations with regards to internet-of-things technology. The bill requires that all federal contractors and vendors adhere to these guidelines.

Feds Only

While legislators aim to broadly impact the security of IoT devices through the power of federal purchasing, the bill itself only focuses on government requirements for the devices that agencies buy for their own use, says PTC's Corman. If the Pentagon purchases battlefield systems, they want to make sure that they cannot be hacked by other nations' militaries.

"The government has every right as a purchaser of device to want to have those products not be hackable or trackable," he says. "The manufacturers of a $100 device don't realize that, if its deployed by the federal government, that the attack surface and threat model is markedly different."

In many ways the legislation already follows the precedent set in legislation passed by California late last year, which requires manufacturers to incorporate "reasonable security feature or features" into IoT devices.

In a May 2018 report on defending against botnets and automated threats, the US Department of Homeland Security and US Department of Commerce recommended that technology and products include security at every stage of their development and manufacture. In addition, the report argued that the federal government should use its purchasing power to incentivize manufacturers to create more secure technology.

"Product developers, manufacturers, and vendors are motivated to minimize cost and time to market, rather than to build in security or offer efficient security updates," the report stated. "Market incentives must be realigned to promote a better balance between security and convenience when developing products.

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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