Awareness of cybersecurity danger has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2004, the entire global cybersecurity market totaled $3.5 billion — by 2014, it exceeded $120 billion. However, almost all this attention has been on attack vectors such as software, applications, infrastructure, and human/social behavior. Firmware — code that is loaded onto a device when it's built and is mostly hidden from the end user — is a dangerous new attack vector. It is largely firmware concerns that are driving the debate around devices made by the Chinese firm Huawei.
The emergence of firmware as a new attack vector has reignited an age-old debate within industry: Who's responsible for addressing device cybersecurity? Is it the device manufacturer, or is it the company purchasing the device? This "chicken or the egg" debate has hampered cybersecurity for too long. Unaddressed, it could also torpedo the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), which is expected to produce billions of Internet-connected devices run by firmware — cameras, printers, speakers, appliances.
The government's answer to the question of responsibility is becoming quite clear. In the face of increasingly aggressive and sophisticated cyberattacks, there has been a focus on securing the Department of Defense (DoD) supply chain. This means the cybersecurity practices of contractors have come under more intense review. The mechanism for doing so is through Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplements, or DFARs.
DFAR 252.204-7012 pertains to regulations around how contractors must safeguard covered defense information, and how they need to report cyber incidents. To enforce these requirements, the DoD has launched its Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) initiative, which will require contractors achieve certification by late 2020 to participate in the national defense supply chain.
These regulations also reflect an increasing willingness of government to hold companies responsible for cybersecurity vulnerabilities in their products. For example, Cisco recently agreed to pay $8.6 million to settle litigation claiming the company violated the False Claims Act by not addressing vulnerabilities in its video surveillance products sold to the US government. The company ignored the warnings of an internal whistleblower and continued to sell the product for years before revealing the potential cybersecurity holes publicly.
Of course, the threat extends beyond government networks to private industry and academia as well. Recently, I was speaking with Bill Priestap, former assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division, at a recent cyber summit held in Baltimore, Maryland. He shared with me the following quote:
Nation state adversaries are employing a variety of means to try to gain insight into our companies and research institutions, and today our approach to protecting proprietary information must be more comprehensive. Among other things, this involves understanding and addressing supply chain risks, including those associated with firmware.
The counter narrative from the industry regarding taking on such cybersecurity responsibility has been the difficulty and additional cost. Many cybersecurity products involve technology from multiple firms, increasing the complexity of the challenge. Firmware images and libraries are often delivered as binaries for insertion into software, meaning there is no access to the source code. In the business-to-government space, additional quality assurance time and costs need to be borne without a guarantee of resulting business.
There is some validity to these arguments, but times have changed and companies must step up and accept responsibility for the cybersecurity of their offerings. It's become the table stakes for doing business.
Leading companies can also view increased firmware security as a differentiator. New technology startups have emerged, some headed by former intelligence personnel, that simplify and automate the firmware analysis process. File systems can be extracted and scans run to detect things like backdoor accounts, out of date software and potential zero-day vulnerabilities. Companies have better technology today to inspect and validate the components provided by their vendors.
It's time for cybersecurity manufacturers and solution providers to step up and show leadership in addressing firmware security. Better tools are available, and government regulation is increasingly making it mandatory. Embracing the challenge head on will increase confidence in IoT devices, be better for their bottom lines and ensure the continued growth of the cybersecurity industry overall.
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