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

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.

With today’s sequel, I will take a closer look on how it came to that, what we could do about these pervasive vulnerabilities, and on responses that have already been made.


The Causes

In his essay, Schneier identified the reasons why vulnerabilities in embedded systems have evolved to the extent that we are facing now:

The problem with this process is that no one entity [involved in the manufacturing of “smart” devices] has any incentive, expertise, or even ability to patch the software once it’s shipped.


Lacking incentives and expertise keep chip manufacturers under pressure to ship the next version of the chip, while the original device manufacturer is caught up with upgrading its product for this next chip.

Correspondingly, so Schneier, “it’s often impossible to patch the software or upgrade the components to the latest version.” And even if patches or updates are possible, they are rarely applied, since users are not notified about their availability (if available at all), and left on their own when it comes to manually download and install them without guidance.

The security expert concluded:

Combine full function with lack of updates, add in a pernicious market dynamic that has inhibited updates and prevented anyone else from updating, and we have an incipient disaster in front of us. It’s just a matter of when.


The Solution

To get the problem fixed, Schneier called for

[…] pressure on embedded system vendors to design their systems better. We need open-source driver software […] so third-party vendors and ISPs can provide security tools and software updates for as long as the device is in use. We need automatic update mechanisms to ensure they get installed.


According to the security expert, “the economic incentives point to large ISPs as the driver for change,” as they are bearing the cost when routers and modems, the primary target of IoT attacks (see yesterday’s blog post), are compromised and need to be exchanged.


The Current State

While ISPs have not yet made this first big step, the change that Schneier called for  may gain momentum from another corner of the private sector. The insurance intelligence platform Cyber Risk Network reported at the end of January on how cyber insurers increasingly fund risk management to strengthen policy holders’ data security systems.
It is my understanding that, although this trend may rather constitute a response to recent large-scale data breaches of major retailing companies, its general dynamics can be expected to spill over into the IoT. Then, “smart” appliances, first and foremost routers and modems, would be equipped with security tools and regimes (including regular and automatic updates), just as we know it from our PCs.

Finally, a more specific note, Cisco Systems Inc. posted an opening for a malware engineer. The job description reflects the challenge that Schneier pointed to, and documents the major network equipment (and thus router and modem) manufacturer’s awareness of the problem:

– [a]nalyze, reverse engineer malware samples and provide coverage through various software solutions
– [p]rovide detailed analysis (host and network forensics) of malware samples and/or families
– [c]ontribute research papers, whitepapers and blogs describing the evolving threat landscape
– [p]rototype, implement and extend backend tools and systems to automate or improve the malware analysis process


While the issue of pervasive IoT vulnerabilities has been discussed as a matter of cyber security policy before, the magnitude of the problem (market researcher International Data Corporation estimated the total number of “things” connected across the globe by the end of 2020 to be 212 billion) would – in my eyes – justify legislative action on top of providing incentives for voluntary measures.


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Professor William Snyder

Professor William C. Snyderis a member of the faculty of the Institute for National Security and Counter-terrorism at Syracuse University after fifteen years with the United States Department of Justice.

Ryan D. White

Ryan D. WhiteRyan is currently a third year law student at Syracuse University College of Law, and is also pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from Syracuse’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Ryan spent time with Homeland Security Investigations while pursuing his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University, and spent his first summer of law school as clerk for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of New York. He is a member of Syracuse Law Review, the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and participates in the Veteran’s Legal Clinic. Full biography

Shelby E. Mann

Ryan D. WhiteShelby is a second year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law. She is the 2018-9 Editor in Chief of the Syracuse Law Review, as well as a member of the Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis, and the senior editor for the Syrian Accountability Project. During her final year at the University of Missouri, she served as a full-time news producer for ABC 17 News. Shelby spent her first summer of law school at the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office in Memphis, Tenn., in the Public Corruption and Economic Crimes Unit. Full biography

Christopher w. FolkChristopher W. Folk

is a 2017 graduate of SU College of Law. A non-traditional student, Christopher returned to academia after spending nearly twenty years in the high tech industry. Christopher served in the Marine Corps, graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. In Applied Economics and Business Management, attended Northeastern University’s High-Tech MBA Program and received a M.S. In Computer Information Systems. Christopher previously worked in Software Engineering. Christopher is currently serving his second term as Town Justice for the Town of Waterloo. Christopher externed with a Cybersecurity firm in the Washington, D.C. area between his first and second year at SU College of Law. Full biography

Anna Maria Castillo

Anna Maria Castillois 2016 graduate of Syracuse College of Law. She also holds a Master of Arts in International Relations from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She has interned at a London-based think-tank that specializes in transnational terrorism and global security and at the legal department of a defense contractor. She served as an executive editor in the Syracuse Law Review. Full biography

Jennifer A. CamilloJennifer A. Camillo

is a 2015 graduate of Syracuse College of Law and is a prosecutor. She has served as a law clerk in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York and the Cayuga County District Attorney’s Office and as an extern in the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office. She was a member of the Syracuse National Trial Team and was awarded the Tiffany Cup by the New York Bar Association for her trial advocacy achievements.

Tara J. PistoreseTara J. Pistorese

holds Juris Doctor and Masters of Public Administration degrees from Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and its College of Law. She wrote for this blog when a student. She is now a member of the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Benjamin Zaiser

is both a scholar and a Federal Agent of the Federal Criminal Police Office of Germany. (Opinions expressed here are his own and not any part of official duty.) Full biography


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