The Internet of Things (IoT) is a swamp that just doesn’t want to be drained. While there hasn’t been a huge alligator of a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack in the last few months, it’s only a matter of time before a new one strikes. There are simply too many connected devices, many of which lack the built-in security to resist bot hijacking schemes.
In light of new regulations and recent advancements in device manufacturing and telecommunications, the unstructured network appears poised for big changes after the first quarter of 2017.
Why Is the IoT So Insecure?
While some experts would like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to set security standards, the agency indicated that it considered IoT regulation to be outside its jurisdiction, leaving the task to manufacturers and private groups. These experts are in favor of region-specific regulations, but the fabric in use is global, not local. A malicious device in one country is a possible threat vector in another, even if you cannot legally sell it there.
There are economic disincentives in this situation as well. Regulatory requirements can certainly boost the effectiveness of embedded security in IoT devices, but these enhancements will inevitably drive up the cost. Furthermore, price-sensitive consumers in unregulated environments are likely to forgo these capabilities for cheaper devices. This attitude encourages vendors to bypass costly security features.
Noncommodity networked devices can be just as insecure. Earlier this quarter, for example, a smart dishwasher ran Telnet on port 80 to remotely report its status. Because of that, it was subject to a directory transversal attack and could be hijacked by a bot. In this case, the software design was the problem, not the hardware.
Read the IBM X-Force Research report: Weaponizing the Internet of Things
Inching Closer to 5G
On the last day of this past quarter, Verizon announced that it had come up with a plan to stake out one part of the IoT mix for itself. The approach involves specific hardware that can be used with the company’s new 4G LTE service, M1, which is a low-power wide area network (LPWAN) that runs on licensed spectrum. M1 bandwidth is about 10 percent of the normal LTE bandwidth of 5 Mbps. This makes it suitable for devices that do not continually broadcast data, but rather send data after a query or merely issue low-bandwidth status updates.
As evidenced by recent advancements in the technology, telecommunications companies will likely upgrade from 4G to 5G networks, which can handle a far higher bandwidth than M1. The draft specs came out in February 2017, offering a first look at some of the proposed numbers. Although it’s only a draft, most of it will probably be approved later this year. Network operators can start building out infrastructure once they know what frequencies will be assigned to 5G.
Something that stood out from the background in the draft was the connection density: The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) wants the networks to be able to handle 1 million connected devices per square kilometer, or 0.38 square miles. That’s a lot of smart devices.
At that density, 5G could facilitate municipal networks of linked IoT devices, such as traffic lights and parking spaces. The implications of the global IoT-friendly safe cities program are still up in the air, but one market researcher predicted that North America will dominate the market from 2015 to 2020. Currently, there are about 200 safe city projects underway.
Spreading IoT Best Practices
Manufacturers may try to solve the problem of IoT commodity devices by changing the hardware that will be used in these new — and hopefully more secure — devices. Even if the machines run 5G, standards should be established regarding the changing of hardware to encourage responsible IoT device usage. Those best practices would ideally be spread over time to include devices on other systems.
The bottom line is that security professionals, regulators and others must deal with the growing volume of connected devices. The trend is not slowing down anytime soon, and both consumer and enterprise protection depends on acting now.
Listen to the podcast: 5 Indisputable facts about IOT security
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 mag...