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IoT Cybersecurity: What’s Plan B?

In August, four US Senators introduced a bill designed to improve Internet of Things (IoT) security. The IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017 is a modest piece of legislation. It doesn’t regulate the IoT market. It doesn’t single out any industries for particular attention, or force any companies to do anything. It doesn’t even modify the liability laws for embedded software. Companies can continue to sell IoT devices with whatever lousy security they want.

What the bill does do is leverage the government’s buying power to nudge the market: any IoT product that the government buys must meet minimum security standards. It requires vendors to ensure that devices can not only be patched, but are patched in an authenticated and timely manner; don’t have unchangeable default passwords; and are free from known vulnerabilities. It’s about as low a security bar as you can set, and that it will considerably improve security speaks volumes about the current state of IoT security. (Full disclosure: I helped draft some of the bill’s security requirements.)

The bill would also modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse and the Digital Millennium Copyright Acts to allow security researchers to study the security of IoT devices purchased by the government. It’s a far narrower exemption than our industry needs. But it’s a good first step, which is probably the best thing you can say about this legislation.

However, it’s unlikely this first step will even be taken. I am writing this column in August, and have no doubt that the bill will have gone nowhere by the time you read it in October or later. If hearings are held, they won’t matter. The bill won’t have been voted on by any committee, and it won’t be on any legislative calendar. The odds of this bill becoming law are zero. And that’s not just because of current politics — I’d be equally pessimistic under the Obama administration.

But the situation is critical. The Internet is dangerous — and the IoT gives it not just eyes and ears, but also hands and feet. Security vulnerabilities, exploits, and attacks that once affected only bits and bytes now affect flesh and blood.

Markets, as we’ve repeatedly learned over the past century, are terrible mechanisms for improving the safety of products and services. It was true for automobile, food, restaurant, airplane, fire, and financial-instrument safety. The reasons are complicated, but basically, sellers don’t compete on safety features because buyers can’t efficiently differentiate products based on safety considerations. The race-to-the-bottom mechanism that markets use to minimize prices also minimizes quality. Without government intervention, the IoT remains dangerously insecure.

The US government has no appetite for intervention, so we won’t see serious safety and security regulations, a new federal agency, or better liability laws. We might have a better chance in the EU. Depending on how the General Data Protection Regulation on data privacy pans out, the EU might pass a similar security law in 5 years. No other country has a large enough market share to make a difference.

Sometimes we can opt out of the IoT, but that option is becoming increasingly rare. Last year, I tried and failed to purchase a new car without an Internet connection. In a few years, it’s going to be nearly impossible to not be multiply connected to the IoT. And our biggest IoT security risks will stem not from devices we have a market relationship with, but from everyone else’s cars, cameras, routers, drones, and so on.

We can try to shop our ideals and demand more security, but companies don’t compete on IoT safety — and we security experts aren’t a large enough market force to make a difference.

We need a Plan B, although I’m not sure what that is. Comment if you have any ideas.

This essay previously appeared in the September/October issue of IEEE Security & Privacy.

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Vulnerabilities in Car Washes

Articles about serious vulnerabilities in IoT devices and embedded systems are now dime-a-dozen. This one concerns Internet-connected car washes:

A group of security researchers have found vulnerabilities in internet-connected drive-through car washes that would let hackers remotely hijack the systems to physically attack vehicles and their occupants. The vulnerabilities would let an attacker open and close the bay doors on a car wash to trap vehicles inside the chamber, or strike them with the doors, damaging them and possibly injuring occupants.

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Roombas will Spy on You

The company that sells the Roomba autonomous vacuum wants to sell the data about your home that it collects.

Some questions:

What happens if a Roomba user consents to the data collection and later sells his or her home — especially furnished — and now the buyers of the data have a map of a home that belongs to someone who didn’t consent, Mr. Gidari asked. How long is the data kept? If the house burns down, can the insurance company obtain the data and use it to identify possible causes? Can the police use it after a robbery?

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Password Masking

Slashdot asks if password masking — replacing password characters with asterisks as you type them — is on the way out. I don’t know if that’s true, but I would be happy to see it go. Shoulder surfing, the threat is defends against, is largely nonexistent. And it is becoming harder to type in passwords on small screens and annoying interfaces. The IoT will only exacerbate this problem, and when passwords are harder to type in, users choose weaker ones.

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Websites Grabbing User-Form Data Before It’s Submitted

Websites are sending information prematurely:

…we discovered NaviStone’s code on sites run by Acurian, Quicken Loans, a continuing education center, a clothing store for plus-sized women, and a host of other retailers. Using Javascript, those sites were transmitting information from people as soon as they typed or auto-filled it into an online form. That way, the company would have it even if those people immediately changed their minds and closed the page.

This is important because it goes against what people expect:

In yesterday’s report on Acurian Health, University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo told Gizmodo that giving users a “send” or “submit” button, but then sending the entered information regardless of whether the button is pressed or not, clearly violates a user’s expectation of what will happen. Calo said it could violate a federal law against unfair and deceptive practices, as well as laws against deceptive trade practices in California and Massachusetts. A complaint on those grounds, Calo said, “would not be laughed out of court.”

This kind of thing is going to happen more and more, in all sorts of areas of our lives. The Internet of Things is the Internet of sensors, and the Internet of surveillance. We’ve long passed the point where ordinary people have any technical understanding of the different ways networked computers violate their privacy. Government needs to step in and regulate businesses down to reasonable practices. Which means government needs to prioritize security over their own surveillance needs.

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Is Continuing to Patch Windows XP a Mistake?

Last week, Microsoft issued a security patch for Windows XP, a 16-year-old operating system that Microsoft officially no longer supports. Last month, Microsoft issued a Windows XP patch for the vulnerability used in WannaCry.

Is this a good idea? This 2014 essay argues that it’s not:

The zero-day flaw and its exploitation is unfortunate, and Microsoft is likely smarting from government calls for people to stop using Internet Explorer. The company had three ways it could respond. It could have done nothingĀ­ — stuck to its guns, maintained that the end of support means the end of support, and encouraged people to move to a different platform. It could also have relented entirely, extended Windows XP’s support life cycle for another few years and waited for attrition to shrink Windows XP’s userbase to irrelevant levels. Or it could have claimed that this case is somehow “special,” releasing a patch while still claiming that Windows XP isn’t supported.

None of these options is perfect. A hard-line approach to the end-of-life means that there are people being exploited that Microsoft refuses to help. A complete about-turn means that Windows XP will take even longer to flush out of the market, making it a continued headache for developers and administrators alike.

But the option Microsoft took is the worst of all worlds. It undermines efforts by IT staff to ditch the ancient operating system and undermines Microsoft’s assertion that Windows XP isn’t supported, while doing nothing to meaningfully improve the security of Windows XP users. The upside? It buys those users at best a few extra days of improved security. It’s hard to say how that was possibly worth it.

This is a hard trade-off, and it’s going to get much worse with the Internet of Things. Here’s me:

The security of our computers and phones also comes from the fact that we replace them regularly. We buy new laptops every few years. We get new phones even more frequently. This isn’t true for all of the embedded IoT systems. They last for years, even decades. We might buy a new DVR every five or ten years. We replace our refrigerator every 25 years. We replace our thermostat approximately never. Already the banking industry is dealing with the security problems of Windows 95 embedded in ATMs. This same problem is going to occur all over the Internet of Things.

At least Microsoft has security engineers on staff that can write a patch for Windows XP. There will be no one able to write patches for your 16-year-old thermostat and refrigerator, even assuming those devices can accept security patches.

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