“Not with a bang, but with a whimper,” that was how T.S. Eliot described how the world would end, in his 1925 poem “The Hollow Men.” Things don’t always end in cataclysm; sometimes they just… stop, which might seem awfully prophetic in a few years…
One of the more interesting topics for conversation at RSA Conference 2017 in San Francisco this year was the IoT and the next generation of ransomware. After all, if you can make money encrypting people’s hard drives (and you can, a LOT of money,) then surely the explosion of smart devices could offer the ingenious criminal even more opportunity to make money fast.
So how does this change how we think about things like ransomware? After all, it’s not likely that we’ll see weaponized encryption techniques holding data hostage when most of the IoT devices are more likely to be throwing data back up to some service as fast as their little wireless card will let them. What is more likely is that attackers will hold them hostage, by shutting them down, making them disappear, or turning them into, well, evil.
For example, the story of the hotel in Austria who discovered that smart door locks are great until someone else controls them, and they want money to let the guests back in. Not good – especially when you have hundreds of angry guests wanting to go to bed.
This kind of Denial of Things (DoT) attack is going to be increasingly effective as the IoT becomes more and more embedded in the fabric of our homes, offices, and cities.
Consider, for a moment, the 15 million+ trucks in the US. Autonomous trucking is clearly on the horizon, yet imagine the social and economic impact if one day those trucks simply stopped. An attack on autonomous vehicles like trucking doesn’t have to be some kind of science-fiction scenario to be devastating.
Rather, as autonomous trucks (or any other vehicle) become a reality, they are likely going to be highly connected to management systems, tracking systems, smart infrastructure, freight tracking systems, and so on. In short, an attack surface the size of an 18-wheeler. The only thing an attacker would have to do is simply tell them to stop. All at once. And then brick the system, so that it takes a lot of time and effort to clear the roads and get them moving again. Imagine millions of trucks simply grinding to a halt across the country. Think your morning commute is bad? It could get a whole lot worse.
Of course, I understand that this may be far easier said than done, and that all kinds of safeguards will be in place to prevent this from happening. That the trucking industry and autonomous vehicle manufacturers will take security very seriously. Nevertheless, let’s be under no illusions that the explosion in devices will offer up countless opportunities to inflict cost, discomfort, and possibly actual physical danger to users and innocent bystanders alike, and controlling that risk will bring with it monetary value.
As usual, the good news is that we’re not there, yet. But “there” isn’t very far from “here” and the attackers know it. This kind of attack isn’t just the kind of thing that commercial hackers would be interested in, either. Far from it – the level of impact rises quickly to be something a non-too-friendly nation state would be interested in, also. Pretty soon those “kinetic IoT” devices become part of the critical infrastructure, and should be treated, and regulated, as such.
Taking control of such complex and deeply intertwined systems will be a tempting target that we need to plan to protect, and force protection of, at the Federal Government level. Otherwise turning the entire US road system into a giant, perpetual truck stop is going to be available at the flick of a switch.