The Role of Trust in the IoT

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A distinctive characteristic of our species, perhaps the most unique, and the one that has separated us from all the others, is the compounding effect of our technology. Each generation has added to our collective knowledge, improved our processes, and accelerated our development. Today we regularly craft complex products, with billions of internal components, from devices that are one hundredth the diameter of a blood cell. Regardless of how small technology enables us to shrink our creations, another issue that remains constant is that we still need to place our trust in this technology for it to make a difference in our lives. Few people understand how Alexa takes our verbal request and turns it into an answer, the how is unimportant to most. What is important is that when she provides us with information, we can trust and act upon that information. Without trust, technology loses all its advantage; it will fall into disuse and eventually be pruned from our collective knowledge base. Trust is the cement that binds one innovation on top of the next, and it is vital to the advancement of technology. Trust is a fragile construct, though, which can easily be destroyed.

My childhood was enjoyed in a suburb an hour north of the Big Apple. From the mid-1960s through most of the 1970s we’d never locked our doors, even the garage was often left open overnight. Our home was a simple raised ranch tract structure built in a sleepy little town, only a decade more advanced than Mayberry. Most Saturday mornings, I’d ride my bike five miles into town to turn in my paper route money. Then I’d take my wages, buy a slushy near the firehouse, stop at the Radio Shack to see what’s new, and finish with a Big Mac lunch at McDonald’s and arrive home by early afternoon. If the weather were beautiful, I’d swing by the house, pick up my rod and head down to one of a half dozen or more fishing spots on the nearby reservoir. I only needed to be home for dinner. Life was simple, and trust wasn’t earned, it was our default setting. This was decades before my first pager or cell phone, but I always had a dime in my pocket to call home from a payphone in the event the weather turned, or my bike failed. One Sunday, when I was twelve, we came home early from church to find our next-door neighbor’s son sitting on the back steps with several of our prized belongings in his hands. My parents, especially my mom’s trust, was shattered. This single event changed everything and established a new paradigm. We started locking our doors, and my mom gave me a brass key for the first time in my life.

Trust is an interesting attribute; we give it away for free, then we’re shocked when it’s abused or entirely disregarded.
The above brass key represented a simple technological solution designed to bridge the trust my mom had lost in our neighbors. It’s interesting to see how a single small piece of metal, nothing more than a token with a single function, can replace trust lost. Many years later, as a security professional, I learned how easily that custom piece of brass could be supplanted by two generic pieces of spring steel, some skill, and a few seconds. Technology is the distillation of our expertise, processes, and techniques in the production of goods or services, so why is trust important?

As we glide into the age of the Internet of Things (IoT), everything will become interconnected, and trust will be the cement in the foundation on which all this technology depends. I’m in the process of building a new home. It will feature the latest IoT: locks, garage door opener, doorbell, thermostats, smoke detectors, light fixtures, outlets, appliances, speakers, cameras, and even an elevator. Everything will be interconnected, and Alexa will have dominion over it all. As I come home, my garage door will open, and it will trigger a series of events throughout the house if nobody else is already back. The HVAC system will make the necessary adjustments based on my preferences and the time of year. Depending on the time of day, lights may come on in a predetermined sequence, and music will be playing. If my programming works out properly, the TV will display anomalous events since my departure skimmed from the various logs of all these IoT devices. I’ll then know if doors were opened while I was absent, and if so, I can call up and review all motion video captured at each of these points of entry. All of this will require each piece trusting that the others are performing correctly.

This is not to say that we haven’t seen trust in IoT devices be bypassed in the recent past. Three common agents can violate the trust inherent in any system: insiders, outsiders, or the manufacturer. By insiders, I generally mean the average non-technical system user; in the example stated above, it will be my wife, daughter, or parents when they visit. Outsiders are folks with a malicious intent, whose objectives are not aligned with the users, and their goal is the exploitation of the system, often for some revenue-generating purpose. Finally, there is the manufacturer, until the past decade this was a non-issue, but we’ve seen a growth in state-sponsored exploitation of technology in both design and within the supply chain.

A story came out last year where a Nest camera was used by a malicious outsider to terrorize an eight-year-old girl in her bedroom. While the camera was “hacked,” it was later released that the homeowner had a trivial password for the camera and had NOT enabled two-factor authentication (2FA). The attacker used nothing more than a basic web crawling service to find the addresses of Nest Cameras; then, they likely proceeded to use a tool like Hydra to see if any of those cameras had a trivial password without 2FA enabled. Ultimately it was the homeowner who had left the “door open” for this attacker to walk through. While Nest shouldn’t make 2FA mandatory, they could have easily prevented the homeowner from assigning a trivial password to their account.

We’ve seen reports over the years that various SmartPhones have been susceptible to HotMic vulnerabilities by hackers. This malicious code is installed via a targeted spear-phishing attack or social engineering. Once the code is executed that SmartPhones Mic can be enabled or disabled at will be the attacker. This enables the attacker to not only listen in on phone calls, but all the sounds captured by that smartPhone regardless of what application is running or what state the phone is in (unless of course it’s off).

Finally, we have manufacturers who have been both knowingly and unknowingly duped into, including spyware into their products. Laptops have been a common platform for concern in this space, and several spyware apps have shipped with new laptops over the past decade. Servers are a bit harder to infect as they often have no pre-installed applications with the possible exception of the OS. Here we’ve heard stories of supply chains being compromised and covert spy hardware being physically inserted into these products, possibly without the manufacturers being aware of the transgression. Here it’s hard to know the true story.

So as IoT consumers, what can we do? Well, we have four possible courses of action:

1. Become a Luddite, ignore the trend in IoT, and remove all technology from your life. While this is a choice, if you’re reading this, it isn’t one any of us would find acceptable.

2. Be a sheep, blindly trust everyone, buy the latest gear, and auto-install every update. For the vast majority of folks, this is the only viable option. They likely aren’t technology literate much beyond creating a password, and their lives are focused on other more important pursuits.

3. Trust, but read industry news and form your own opinion, then upgrade when your confident it’s appropriate and an improvement. This is where the vast majority of IT folks will land. They’ll stay current with trends, follow Reddit, form their own opinions, and provide support for their families and friends.

4. Trust, but verify by actively doing your network captures. Here is the elite core of bleeding-edge folks who watch their home network on their smartphone for new devices. At least one or more times a year, they’ll do some network captures during quiet times to see what devices might be overly chatty and if there are any latent security threats. They may even have small autonomous systems like Raspberry Pis actively looking for threats, and perhaps even posing as honeypots.

Since IoT devices are always on, they are ideal for co-opting as a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack platform. We’ve seen this happen a number of times over the past few years, one security hole and thousands or even millions of products become launch platforms. IoT manufacturers need to enforce strong passwords on their gear and promote 2FA. They should also annually hire security professionals to test their products and services, and consider sharing those results with their customers in public Reddit groups. Often times customers provide the best feedback to improve a products feature set and security stance.

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