Fixing the Internet of Things

Calling all devices: We are Internet, Resistance is futile!

I’ve been at this long enough to see the birth of the Internet, the current state of the Internet and the future Internet, which is nothing short of being the Internet of everything in our daily lives. Information technology and network connectivity are being embedded into everything – and I mean everything. Things we wear, our transportation, our homes; all the things that are a part of your life become more connected and, as they say, “smarter”.

When the first computers were attached to the Internet, they were almost immediately compromised and, if we are not careful, this is likely to happen again with these devices but on a massive scale and at the most intimate levels of your life. In this article I would like to share my thoughts on the matter and hopefully put out a call to action so that our future will suck less and be more awesome.

The Internet of Things is everyone’s problem. The good news is that the Internet connects everything, but that is also the bad news. Internet security is, therefore, not just your problem but everyone’s, and there is a certain responsibility we must all take as we share this amazing resource.

As Spiderman’s uncle Ben once said “Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.” I’m talking about a responsibility that starts with the vendors of these connected devices, the retailers and ultimately the consumer who has just put another device on the Internet that can be hacked and used for evil and not good.

Let us begin with the responsibility of the consumer because, until they make buying decisions based on security, no one will make security a priority until it is too late. The Internet of Things brings a level of Information Technology and connectivity to our lives that we have never before seen. While we are drunk on the value propositions of your car coordinating with your home automation via your smart glasses and such, the sober reality is that all of these devices add to a target surface that cybercriminals are eager to target.

Are you as talented as they are to subvert the security of these systems? Nope. Do you have as much time to spend on finding weaknesses and exploiting them? Nope. You have a hard enough time keeping your PC, Tablet and Smartphone secure, yet the Internet of Things means adding 100+ new devices to your life from at least 50 different vendors.

The answer, I believe, is that consumers must take on the responsibility of demanding more security in products and more security services that give them a fighting chance in this cyber security battle. If they don’t, regulation will quickly step in – which may be ok – but we will have to see as it all plays out.

We also must take into consideration the expansion of user bases as everything in our lives become connected to the Internet. When all things in the home are connected, not just the computers, everyone in the home now is a target to be fooled into downloading something or clicking the wrong option. Those of you raising children know what I am talking about after having to reformat the family PC due to some little one downloading the latest malware infested game.

It may be time for the girl and boy scouts of America to include information security awareness training for our children or include it in our educational curriculum as they are likely to be exposed to cybercrime well before puberty.

Retailers play a role here too as the Internet of Things for them is both an opportunity and a challenge. The value-added retailer (VAR), once only servicing small to medium business, may be able to shift to a new market which is the home. The Internet of Things will make the smart home just as complicated as, and maybe even harder to manage than, most small offices.

It is the VAR that can help a consumer design and manage the system so that all of the benefits from the Internet of Things can be experienced, but the risks kept to a minimum. It offers one throat to choke when something goes wrong with any one of the 50+ different vendor’s products now operating in your home and daily life.

Most electronic retailers these days have their showrooms locked down, but when absolutely everything on the showroom floor can be configured to talk to everything else, new physical and logical security strategies will need to be invented. Some adversary could walk into a store wearing a smart device, which then associates with something on the showroom floor that then begins exploiting more connections and pretty soon the entire showroom floor is a large botnet ready to point at a victim on the net. Remember, the Internet of Things is synonymous with the Internet of more Insecure Things.

Lastly, we come to the vendors of these magical devices. This consumer electronic industry does not have a great history in delivering security at time of shipment or even during the service life of the device. Given no compelling reason to change that behavior, we are likely to see an explosion of insecure devices being placed on the Internet and, when exploited, an excruciating long remediation window as no forms of automated updates will exist.

I can expand on how bad it will get before it gets better but I’d like to focus on what may happen to get us to a standard of care and security practice so that our future will suck less and be more awesome. If the Internet of Things expands at the rate that everyone predicts it will, I believe that there will be regulation like Underwriters Laboratories (UL) that can deliver on three important functions:

1) Ensure that the device pass a standard penetration evaluation such that the target surface out of the box is at a minimum (hardened).
2) Ensure that the device can report enough telemetry to a central source (leveraging IETF standards) for the continuous monitoring of its operational state and integrity.
3) Ensure that the device have a standards based way of updates such that when vulnerabilities and defects are found in the future, updating can be performed from a trusted source.

If at least these are met out of the gate, the future of the Internet of Things will suck less, and be more awesome.