NewsJanuary 5, 2017 @ 1:55 PM

The FTC Will Pay for an IoT Patching Tool

During the chaotic opening of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) contributed its own bit of glitz and glamour to the occasion.

The agency announced that on Jan. 4, the first day of CES, it would sponsor a contest to develop an Internet of Things (IoT) patching tool for device hardware to “help protect consumers from security vulnerabilities caused by out-of-date software.” Entrants can also add more advanced features to address — for example, hard-coded, factory default or easy-to-guess passwords in the hardware devices.

“Every day, American consumers are offered innovative new products and services to make their homes smarter,” Jessica Rich, head of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a prepared statement. “Consumers want these devices to be secure, so we’re asking for creativity from the public — the tinkerers, thinkers and entrepreneurs — to help them keep device software up to date.”

May the Best IoT Patching Tool Win

The best tool will win $25,000. Three honorable mentions will also win $3,000. The FTC is calling the competition the “IoT Home Inspector Challenge.” Entrants may design a physical device, app or cloud-based service — it won’t matter to the judges, as long as it works.

For the past two years, the FTC has been issuing guidance related to IoT hardware devices. It even formed a special division to deal with them. This competition is another way for the FTC to demonstrate its influence in the space.

Potential Problems

The problem for this competition, however, is that IoT hardware devices cover a wide range of functionality. While some are part of well-defined ecosystems such as home controls, others are standalone devices that offer no obvious path to update the software that runs them. This is the kind of device that the Mirai botnet took advantage of to create a massive distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. The software is hard-coded into the device rather than stored in memory.

In that situation, the tool the FTC seeks would likely be ineffective. Computerworld noted, however, that this kind of device actually led to the genesis of the competition. Such devices may continue to operate long after the company that created them goes out of business.

Entries are due by May 22, and the FTC will accept them as early as March 1. Winners will be announced on July 27, 2017.

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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.