A Security Protocol for the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is growing by leaps and bounds every day. But as the IoT grows, so do the security vulnerabilities of the linked objects. A security protocol to protect IoT devices will always be needed.

For example, an appliance manufacturer may want to link its air conditioning systems to smart home networks to increase sales, but it has never faced the problems of securely networking a product before. The IoT will never be secured until all its participants learn how to embrace security from the outset.

Building In Security Measures for the IoT

There are some obvious things that can be done to embed security in the IoT.

The most obvious one is securing the Web interface of the device. Simple things like making sure that default usernames and passwords are changed during initial setup helps greatly. And the changes shouldn’t allow the use of weak passwords. Perhaps measures such as an account lockout after three to five failed login attempts should be considered.

Attention should be paid to passwords beyond just initial setup changes. Checking network traffic to ensure login codes are not being sent in cleartext is a wise move, and that goes for any password recovery schemes, as well. Additionally, two-factor authentication may be needed for sensitive areas like administrator accounts.

Examining the Web interface for resistance to common attacks like cross-site scripting, cross-site request forgery and SQL injection should be done, too. These attacks are harmful if successful, but they’re also relatively simple in nature, which makes them preventable with the right proactive safeguards.

One trick attackers use involves scanning for open ports with a special program and then exploiting those ports. Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) has only exacerbated this problem by standardizing network access points. Open ports can now be used to launch denial-of-service (DoS) attacks as well as buffer overflow attacks across networks and devices.

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Security Protocol Focuses on Protecting Critical Data

Protecting data during network transit is very important. Any data traffic between a device and the cloud (including information transmitted via mobile apps) should be examined to make sure it is secured. Transport encryption such as the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) methods can protect data — if employed in the correct manner. That usually starts with avoiding proprietary encryption protocols and sticking to commonly used and cryptologically validated ones.

Devices should be regularly updated so that any problems discovered after their release can be corrected, but the patching mechanism itself can be a way for malicious actors to get into a device. To protect against this threat, sensitive data such as credentials should never be hard-coded into the update. Encryption should always be used in the update process so that the patch isn’t readable by someone with a hex editor.

The cloud interface in general must also be secured since poorly guarded cloud interfaces are easy to discover. Review the connection to the cloud and ensure usual transactions like the password reset mechanism will not identify valid accounts. Again, encryption during transport will aid security.

Physical security of the IoT device may get overlooked, but not all threats come from external sources. USB ports, SD cards or other storage means may be a way for attackers to gain access to data stored on the device. If a hardware port is not needed in routine usage, deactivate it.

This is just a top-level review of IoT security, and many other attack vectors could be exploited. But considering the topics mentioned can only improve the security of any IoT-connected device within the enterprise.

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Larry Loeb

Principal, PBC Enterprises

Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek. He wrote for IBM's DeveloperWorks site for seven years and has written a book on the Secure Electronic Transaction Internet protocol. His latest book has the commercially obligatory title of Hack Proofing XML. He's been online since uucp "bang" addressing (where the world existed relative to !decvax), serving as editor of the Macintosh Exchange on BIX and the VARBusiness Exchange.