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What's on Your Enterprise Network? You Might Be Surprised

The strangest connected devices are showing up, and the threats they pose to security should not be overlooked.

Playbooks for incident response at most organizations are unlikely to include provisions for breaches caused by Internet-connected teddy bears and exercise machines — but they soon might have to.

A new survey by research firm Vanson Bourne on behalf of Palo Alto Networks found smart toys and connected sports equipment to be among the many unexpected Internet of Things (IoT) devices showing up on enterprise networks around the world.

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The survey of 1,350 IT business decision makers in the US and 13 other countries sought to identify current IoT security concerns and threats at enterprise organizations. Among the questions was one that asked respondents to identify the strangest IoT devices they found connected to their organizations' networks.

A startling 44% reported seeing wearable medical devices; 43% said they had encountered kettles, coffee machines, and other connected kitchen appliances; 38% said the same of IP-enabled sports equipment, including skipping ropes and weights; 34% reported smart toys; and 27% said smart vehicles. Other responses included hand-wash devices, smart trash cans — and, in one case, aircraft engines. Troublingly, a few respondents reported seeing such devices in industrial and operational tech environments as well.

"IoT devices are often being connected on enterprise networks to help employees do their jobs or manage personal tasks," says May Wang, senior distinguished engineer at Palo Alto Networks. IoT devices are brought in not only by IT departments but also different functional groups, such as facility, operations, finance, and procurement teams, and even individual employees, she says.

Innocuous as the presence of such devices might seem on an enterprise network, they pose a risk that should not be ignored, analysts have noted. Recent years have seen seen multiple reports of attackers hacking into IP-enabled security cameras like Amazon's Ring doorbell camera, smart bulbs, smart speakers like Amazon Echo, and smart fax machines. The first known IoT botnet — Mirai — was, in fact, assembled entirely from weakly protected networked devices, such as home routers and IP cameras.

Attacks targeting IoT devices have also been increasing. A survey that Irdeto conducted in August 2019 showed that 80% of IoT devices manufactured or used by a company have experienced a cyberattack. Ninety percent experienced negative impacts, including operational disruption, data loss, and end-user safety issues.

"Devices that employees innocently bring onto an organization's network are often not built with security in mind and can be easy gateways to a company's most important information and systems," Wang says. 

Attackers not only can compromise the IoT devices, but they also use them as stepping stones in lateral movement to attack other systems on a network, she notes.

"We're seeing a large number of network scans, IP scans, port scans, and vulnerability scans on networks, which are attempting to identify other devices and systems as well as look for targets for the next step in lateral movement," Wang says.

In one instance, researchers at Palo Alto Networks' Unit 42 threat intelligence group found a variant of the Gafgyt malware targeting more than 32,000 potentially vulnerable small office and home wireless routers to conduct a botnet attack against gaming servers on the Internet, Wang says.

The survey results reinforce what is already known about the current state of IoT security, she notes.

"For example, in our research lab we've been able to hack into infusion pumps, routers, and IP cameras, which are some of the most vulnerable types of IoT devices in enterprises," Wang says.

A Worsening Problem
Such issues could soon become worse. Nearly nine in 10 (89%) of IT decision makers in Palo Alto Networks' survey reported seeing an increase in the number of IoT devices — many of them nonbusiness-related — on their networks over the past year. Thirty-five percent described the increase as significant.

Such proliferation of IoT devices has begun changing the threat profile at many organizations. According to Palo Alto Networks, its research shows some 57% of installed IoT devices are vulnerable to attacks with medium to severe consequences.

The survey also shows that many organizations are unprepared for the threat. Only 21% of the IT leaders in the survey, for instance, said their organizations had implemented best practices such as micro-segmentation to separate IoT devices from the rest of the business network. Security experts have long considered segmentation as critical to ensuring attacks on IoT devices and environments don't spill over to the business network

More than half (58%) of survey respondents said they either needed to make a lot of improvements in their approach to IoT security or they needed to completely overhaul it. More respondents representing midsize organizations described their firms as requiring a complete IoT security overhaul than those at large companies and in small organizations.

Wang says organizations can take multiple steps to mitigate exposure to IoT security threats. The first step should be to enable visibility into the exact number and types of devices on the network and to maintain an updated inventory of all connected IoT assets.

Organizations should also consider implementing real-time monitoring of the IoT network and, in addition, apply network segmentation so as to reduce the attack surface.

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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