Internet of crappy things, from a business angle

March 12, 2015

The world of ubiquitous connected devices is almost here, and it’s so eagerly anticipated that it becoming a reality seems inevitable. Anticipation, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that we are going to have a good time with internet of things. As a matter of fact, every “paradigm shift” of such a global scale brings troubles, unless the appropriate preparations have been made. With IoT it doesn’t seem to be the case: As Alex Drozhzhin at Kaspersky Daily blog wrote, “There is a flood of appliances which could be connected – and some are connected – without a second thought as to whether or not it’s necessary. Most people barely give a second thought that a hack of a smart-connected appliance could be dangerous and a lot more threatening than a simple PC hack.”

In other words, more and more appliances of various kinds arrive – home electronics, health care devices, even car washes – equipped with Internet-enabled smart control systems, and they’re remotely hackable.

The situation is pretty clear (or, rather, pretty clearly bad) with home appliances: check out the already-famous report by David Jacobi  about how easily he managed to hack his own smart home to shambles. What about the business angle? The implications are serious and can get ugly.

When a coffee machine gets ear to hear

Here’s one scenario: a coffee machine serving a meeting room, where the most confidential information is shared between people. It’s okay if this is just a “dumb” devices, operated with buttons and tumblers, and all it can do is blend the coffee beans then add boiling water and sugar, and fill the cups. But then let’s imagine it is “smart”, i.e. it is WiFi-enabled and voice controlled. “Voice controlled” means that it has a microphone built-in. WiFi-enabled means that it is a) connected to a local corporate network, b) can receive and, most likely, send data, c) remotely hackable if there are flaws in the firmware and the network isn’t protected well enough. And given all this, is it possible such a smart coffee machine could end up a cyberespionage device one day? It is absolutely possible – unless there are “draconian” measures applied by the firmware writers to make it impervious to remote hacks.

Background check

Actually every “smart” appliance that has functionality to receive data input “in background” – smart TVs, and any other device with cameras and microphones – can be used for spying (and occasionally such incidents have already happen). Recent APTs routinely use notebook cameras to take pictures of the environment without users’ knowledge and consent. One can say that it is computers, and not smart devices, but in fact any smart appliance becomes a full-blown computer with the same possibilities and lack of security as its “common” brethren. Remember the spamming fridge?

In the post linked above we wrote about yet another scenario: attackers remotely disable a climate control system at a facility with strict temperature control rules (thus blinding IR security cameras, for instance) or switch off – again, remotely – the alarm system in an office building or bank. Then armed men in ski masks come in.

As strong as the weakest point 

Every interconnected system is as secure and reliable as its weakest point. Every new smart device added to a given network is a potential entry point for people with malicious intent. Especially given the fact that the users of “smart” devices often neglect checking the settings, leaving the default ones set (which is a blatant violation of cybersecurity basics). It’s like leaving the keys for the super-secure bank vault at the bank’s doors under the rug.

Vendors of smart appliances are clearly interested in adding functionality (and thus adding value) to their devices. They may be “smart”, they may be convenient to use, and just cool to have. But are they secure enough? Not necessarily.

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Presumption of guilt

“In general, the problem is that those who develop home appliances and make them connected face realities of a brand new world they know nothing about. They ultimately find themselves in a situation similar to that of an experienced basketball player sitting through a chess match with a real grand master,” Drozhzhin wrote. Users may also be clueless about the hidden threats that smart devices may pose, – for them a fancy voice-controlled coffee machine is still a coffee machine, not a ready-to-settle “nest” for cyberspies.

And this means that developers of the home and business-oriented smart appliances must take a better look at how secure (or, for now, insecure) their firmware is, while the businesses who deploy such devices in their own networks, should keep them in check, in “presumption of guilt” mode.