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Is your toaster enabling terrorism?


Posted on Wednesday, May 31, 2017 3:48 PM

Sam Vanhoutte by Sam Vanhoutte

What can we learn from the WannaCry ransomware attack and the way we tackle Internet of Things (IoT) projects? That we had better invest enough resources to make, and keep, our smart devices safe.

I was at the airport of Seattle, returning from the Microsoft Build Conference, when I saw the outbreak of the WannaCry ransomware trending on Twitter. There was talk of hospitals that couldn’t operate anymore, government departments unable to function, public transport issues... All consequences of the virus that spread from computer to computer, looking for new victims. The consequences for many IoT scenarios around the world played through my mind. I also remembered the conversations I've had with partners and clients over the past years about investing time and money in the security and safe keeping of IoT devices.

The WannaCry story clearly demonstrated that there was a crushing responsibility for various IT service companies. They should have kept computer systems up to date with a supported Windows version and the latest security updates. Very often, time, budget or change management is a reason why such updates did not happen. "It it’s not broken, don’t fix it." Such thinking left the back door to several critical systems wide open, which made things broken a lot quicker than anyone assumed.

That's why, starting with Windows 10, Microsoft has changed the default 'update policy'. Security and system updates are automatically installed, giving customers a Windows system that is up to date by default. However, the pushing of automatic updates is a major problem with most IoT systems available today.

IoT security with holes

Very often, devices - from smart scales and to internet thermostats to even healthcare devices – are not equipped to receive security updates. The software often does not allow it, or the computing power of the device is too limited to deal with the update logic.

In most cases, the users of such a device don’t think about by the fact that their gadget (or more dangerously, their health device) is actually a mini computer that may have a security issue. If security updates cannot be pushed by default through the manufacturer’s IoT platform, you can assume that the device will never be updated during its entire lifecycle. To make matters worse, such devices often have a long lifespan. Thus, the encryption algorithms used today will no longer prove sufficient to keep sensitive data encrypted in the foreseeable future.

Companies should therefore always supply an update mechanism in their IoT solution. This makes the initial investment higher, but it also offers an undeniable advantage. For one thing, pushing updates can prevent your brand from getting negative exposure in the news as the result of a (serious) vulnerability. But you can also send new pieces of functionality to those devices. This keeps the devices relevant and enables you to offer new features to your customers.

By taking the responsibility for updating (and thus securing) such systems away from the end user, we create a much safer internet. Because no one wants his smart toaster (and its internet connection) used to enable drug trafficking, child pornography or terrorism.


Note: This article was first published via Computable on 30 May 2017 (in Dutch) 

Categories: Opinions
Tags: IoT
written by: Sam Vanhoutte