IoT security: In 2020, action needs to match awareness

As the power of IoT devices increases, security has failed to follow suit. This is a direct result of the drive to the bottom for price of network enabling all devices.

IoT security 2020

But small steps can greatly increase the overall security of IoT.

A better IoT security story has to be one of the most urgent priorities in all of technology. That’s because IoT is one of the industry’s most compelling opportunities and squandering it due to security challenges would be a massive blunder – especially since those challenges are surmountable.

There’s a good reason IoT has become an ever-present buzzword: it has the potential to change many aspects of life and is brimming with opportunities for exciting innovation. This is especially true on the industrial side, where the technology is fueling advances in digital factories, power management, supply-chain optimization, the connected car, and robotics.

Indeed, many companies are moving beyond piloting and prototyping IoT projects to real-world applications. Many are incorporating machine learning and other artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to gain insights from the colossal amounts of data all these sensors and other devices produce.

Yet lack of security continues to threaten the progress of this game-changing technology.

Various research has shown that security is the number one concern for enterprise IoT customers and that they would move faster on IoT programs if their concerns were allayed.

More than three years have passed since the IoT security threat crashed into public view with the massive denial-of-service attack on a major DNS provider which caused outages of some of the web’s most popular sites. The attack was instigated by a botnet of around 145,000 IoT devices – mostly webcams and DVRs – compromised by Mirai malware. In the intervening years, IoT botnets have grown in size and so has the number of attacks fueled by them. But IoT has other troubling security issues, as demonstrated by the rash of IoT locks with glaring security holes in the past year.

The incident should have served as a rallying point for concerted industry action to address IoT security, but little progress has been made.

What’s taking so long?

A primary IoT selling point – the advent of inexpensive sensors and devices – is also a thorn in IoT security’s side. Many manufacturers are pumping out these things without properly securing them for the internet. Many companies, simply looking for the cheapest deals to keep IoT project costs down, buy them without amply considering their security readiness.

Too many devices are being shipped to customers with no password or a standard, hard-coded default password that can easily be discovered and exploited. (The start of the now 400,000 strong Mirai BotNet was a single list of 60 usernames and passwords.)

Beyond passwords, many devices simply are not designed with security in mind at both the software and hardware levels. For example, configuration bit streams should be encrypted and protected, but often aren’t.

Another issue is a lack of software updates. When an attack or vulnerability is discovered, updates are not always rolled out in a timely manner – and sometimes not at all.

While IoT security guidelines exist – for example, the Secure By Design code issued by the U.K. in 2018 – they’re seldom enforced. Contrast that with the payment card industry (PCI), which polices itself with rigid security standards and levies penalties on member companies that fail to follow them.

The IoT segment needs to get serious

Awareness of the IoT security issue has reached government awareness. In the U.S., a Senate bill introduced in 2019 and similar legislation in the House would require the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to take steps to increase the security of IoT devices.

In California, a law took effect on Jan. 1, 2020 requiring that all connected devices sold in the state have “a reasonable security feature or features” and banning shared default passwords.

While this government action is a positive sign, industry typically moves faster than government and IoT manufacturers themselves should take greater responsibility for improved security.

A good start might be an IoT security equivalent to the Energy Star certification for energy efficiency of appliances, electronics, HVAC systems, etc. Energy Star is actually a U.S.-government-backed program, but IoT is moving so fast that I think the industry could get this done faster than waiting for the public sector.

It is up to the industry to once and for all deal with the security challenge or face the prospect that IoT will never achieve its enormous promise and all of us will be paying the price for years from vulnerable devices in the field.

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