Let’s talk about your house for a moment. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that you live in a nice house with doors, windows, the works. All of the various entries have the requisite locking devices. As with most homes, these help prevent unwanted entry, though a determined attacker can surely bypass them. For the moment, let’s ignore the determined attacker and just talk about casual attempts.
Throughout your time living in your home, casual attempts at illegal entry have been rebuffed. You may or may not even know about these attempts. They happen pretty randomly, but there’s typically not much in the way of evidence after the attacker gives up and leaves. So you’re pretty happy with how secure things are.
Recently, you’ve heard about this great new garage from a friend who has one. It’s really nice, low cost, and you have room for it on your property, so you decide to purchase one. You place the order and, after a few days, your new garage arrives. It’s everything you could have imagined. Plenty of room to store all the junk you have in the house, plus you can fit the car in there too!
You use the garage every day, moving boxes in and out of the garage as needed until one day you return home and, for some inexplicable reason, your car won’t fit all the way in. Well, that’s pretty weird, you think. You decide that maybe you stored too much in the garage, so you spend the rest of the day cleaning out the garage. You make some tough decisions and eventually you make enough room to put the car back in the garage.
Time passes and this happens a few more times. After a while you start to get a bit frustrated and decide that maybe you need to buy a bigger garage. You pull out your trusty measuring tape to verify the dimensions of the garage and, to your amazement, the garage is smaller than what you remember. You do some more checking and, to your amazement, the garage is bigger on the outside. So you call an expert to figure out what’s going on.
When the expert arrives, she takes one look at the situation and tells you she knows exactly what has happened. You watch with awe as she walks up to the closed garage, places her hand on the door, and the door opens by itself! Curious, you ask how she performed that little magic trick. She explains that this particular model of garage has a little known problem that allows the door to be opened by putting pressure on just the right place. Next, she head into the garage and starts poking around at the walls. After a few moments, one of the walls slides open revealing another room full of stuff you don’t recognize.
Your expert explains that obviously someone else knows about this weakness and has set up a false wall in your garage to hide their own stuff in. This is the source of the shrinking space and your frustration. She helps you clean up the mess and tear down the false wall. After everything is back to normal, she recommends you contact the manufacturer and see if they have a fix for the faulty door.
While this story may sound pretty far fetched when we’re talking about houses and garages, it’s an all too common story for consumer grade appliances. And as we move further into this new age of connected devices, commonly called the Internet of Things (IoT), it’s going to become and even bigger issue.
Network access itself is the first challenge. Many of the major home router vendors have already experienced problems with security. So right out of the gate, home networks are potentially vulnerable. This is a major problem, especially given the potentially sensitive nature of data being transmitted by a variety of new IoT devices.
Today’s devices are incredibly data-centric. From fitness trackers to environmental sensors, our devices are tracking everything. This data is collected and then transmitted to an internet-connected service where it is made available to the user in a variety of ways. Some users may find this data to be sensitive, hoping to keep it relatively private, available only to the user and, anonymously, to the service they subscribe to. Others may make this data public. But in the world of IoT, a security problem with a device compromises that choice.
Or maybe the attacker isn’t after your data at all. Perhaps, like our garage example, they’re looking for resources they can use. Maybe they want to store files, or maybe they’re looking to use your device to process their own data. Years ago, attackers would gain access to a remote system so they could take advantage of the space available on the system, typically storing data and setting up a warez site. That is, illegal copies of software available to those who know where to look. These days, however, storage is everywhere and there are many superior ways to transmit files between users. As a result, the old-school practice of setting up a warez site has mostly fallen by the wayside.
In today’s world, attackers want access to your devices for a variety of reasons. Some attackers use these devices as zombie systems for sending massive amounts of spam. Typically this just results in a slow Internet connection and possibly gets your IP banned from sending mail. Not a big deal for you, but it can be a real headache for those of us dealing with the influx of spam.
More and more, however, attackers are taking over machines to use them for their processing power, or for their connection to the Internet. For instance, some attackers compromise machines just so they can use them to mine bitcoins. It seems harmless enough, but it can be an inconvenience to the owner of the device when it doesn’t respond the way it should because it’s too busy working on something else.
Attackers are also using the Internet connections for nefarious purposes such as setting up denial of service hosts. They use your connection, and the connections of other systems they have compromised, to send massive amounts of data to a remote system. The entire purpose of this activity it to prevent the remote system from being accessible. It was widely reported that this sort of activity is what caused connectivity problems to both Microsoft’s Xbox Live service as well as the Playstation Network during Christmas of 2014.
So what can we do about this? Users clearly want this technology, so we need to do something to make it more secure. And to be clear, this problem goes beyond the vendors, it includes the users as well. Software has and will always have bugs. Some of these bugs can be exploited and result in a security problem. So the first step is ensuring that vendors are patching those bugs when they’re found. And, perhaps, vendors can be convinced to bolster their internal security teams such that secure coding practices are followed.
But vendors patching bugs isn’t the only problem, and in most cases, it’s the easy part of the problem. Once a patch exists, users have to apply that patch to their system. As we’ve seen over the years, patching isn’t something that users are very good at. Thus, automatic update systems such as those used by Microsoft and Apple, are commonplace. But this practice hasn’t carried over to devices yet. Vendors need to work on this and build these features into their hardware. Until they do, these security issues will remain a widespread problem.
So yes, your iToaster needs security. And we need vendors to take the next step and bake in automatic updating so security becomes the default. End users want devices that work without having to worry about how and when to update them. Not all manufacturers have the marketing savvy that Apple uses to make updating sexy. Maybe they can take a page out of the book Microsoft used with the Xbox One. Silent updates, automatically, overnight.