Of Fridges and Pacemakers: The Pervasive Vulnerabilities of the Internet of Things (1/2)


The Problem

In January, the Wired magazine published an essay, in which cyber security guru Bruce Schneier warned about the security risks of the Internet of Things (IoT).  “Riddled with vulnerabilities,” information technology (IT) embedded in all kinds of appliances at home, in the public, in cars, or even in our bodies allows hackers to access such systems at much less cost compared to our personal computers, which are often well protected and regularly updated in terms of security.

This post is the first of two parts. Today, I will sketch out the phenomenology of these IoT specific vulnerabilities, blogging about incidents that have illustrated their presence and give an idea of their future potential. Tomorrow, I will cover the political considerations. Following Schneier’s argument on the causes of this problem and his prescription, I will outline first responses of the private sector.


Its Manifestations

Schneier referred to routers and modems as a primary target, as they are

(1) between users and the Internet, so turning them off is increasingly not an option;

(2) more powerful and more general in function than other embedded devices;

(3) the one 24/7 computing device in the house […].


Accordingly, Fabio Assolini of Kaspersky Labs reviewed the 2011 hacking of more than 4.5 million home DSL routers in Brazil on securelist.com. Cyber criminals remotely accessed unprotected ADSL modems and changed their configurations in a way that directed traffic to malicious domain name servers (DNS). Instead of the (correctly entered) web address, the router took affected users to a destination that only pretended to be the desired (and correctly requested) homepage, tricking them into entering financially sensitive information.

2 weeks ago, a similar incident has been reported by the Polish Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT Polska). In late 2013, the country’s cyber watch started to investigate what they found to be a “[l]arge-scale DNS redirection on home routers for financial theft,” the same kind of attack that has occurred in Brazil, and which is commonly referred to DNS hijacking.

But Schneier’s argument is not restricted to routers,

[a]s the Internet — as well as our homes and bodies — becomes flooded with new embedded devices that will be equally poorly maintained and unpatchable.


Only ten days after Schneier’s publication, cyber security company Proofpoint, Inc. announced the detection of a cyber attack that hacked more than 100,000 electronic devices. Refrigerators and TVs, among others, sent out at least 750,000 spam and phishing emails with the purpose to install malicious software and extract sensitive information. The company’s researchers uncovered “what may be the first proven Internet of Things (IoT)-based cyber attack involving conventional household ‘smart’ appliances.” According to Schneier, “there’s no good way to patch them.” Fridges and cars are not (yet) equipped with firewalls and anti-virus software.

Moreover, for the Black Hat Asia technical information security conference scheduled at the end of March 2014 in Singapore, two Spanish researchers announced to demonstrate how they will hack a car and take over control “just by hooking four wires,” using a custom made tool that costs less than 20 US Dollars.

And finally, as early as 2008, the Wired magazine published an article headlined “Scientists Demonstrate Deadly WiFi Pacemaker Hack.” Long before Showtime’s polit-thriller TV show “Homeland” introduced that kind of cyber attack to its audience two years ago, and Dick Cheney told CBS last year how, in order to prevent potential assassination, he had his doctors disable the WiFi function of his pacemaker when he got it implanted, these news already gave a taste of the pervasive vulnerabilities of the IoT.


Tune in tomorrow to find out about the causes of the problem, what could be done, and what is currently done about it.


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One Response to “Of Fridges and Pacemakers: The Pervasive Vulnerabilities of the Internet of Things (1/2)”

  1. […] Yesterday’s blog post raised awareness on the insecurities of the Internet of Things (IoT). Widespread vulnerabilities make all kinds of “smart” devices an easily accessible and controllable target for hackers and cyber criminals. Several examples of cyber attacks on such embedded systems have been mentioned to substantiate security expert Bruce Schneier’s problem statement. […]

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