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Interdependence: Good for community, bad for the IoT

Taylor Armerding | May 12, 2014
Size matters. Which is one of the main reasons the Internet of Things (IoT) is, and is likely to remain, a very dangerous place.

That, he said, is because of the fourth problem:"The root source of risk is dependence," and people and society are becoming ever more interdependent, "especially on the expectation of stable system state."

That system, he said, is more fragile than most people think. "As society becomes more technologic, even the mundane comes to depend on distant digital perfection," he said, using the nation's food supply as an example.

"Our food pipeline contains less than a week's supply, and that pipeline depends on digital services for everything from GPS-driven tractors to drone-surveilling irrigators to robot vegetable-sorting machinery to coast-to-coast logistics to RFID-tagged livestock," he said.

"Is all the technological dependency and the data that fuels it making us more resilient or more fragile?" he asked.

There is no easy fix either, Geer said, noting that if an embedded system does not have a management interface, "then a late-discovered flaw cannot be fixed without visiting all the embedded systems, which is likely to be infeasible."

But if it does have such an interface, then an "opponent of skill will focus on that, and once a break is achieved will use those selfsame management functions to ensure that not only does he maintain control over the long interval, but you'll be unlikely to know that he's there."

So, Geer suggested, embedded systems should be made more like humans in some ways. Those with no remote management interface, "and thus out of reach, are a life form, and as the purpose of life is to end, they must be designed so as to be certain to die at some fixed time."

Those that do have such an interface, "must be sufficiently self protecting that they are capable of refusing a command.

"That is the core of my thesis," he said, but added that, "the future obviously will not be so simple, nor am I making it out to be."

Indeed, for the average home Internet user, it could be very uncertain. Geer said most routers are almost comically insecure, given that they have, "drivers and operating systems amounting to snapshots of the state of Linux, plus the lowest-end commodity chips extant at the time of the router's design."

They are cheap, but remarkably old, he said, and therefore highly exploitable. "There are numerous methods of attacking both the operating system and the device drivers, and to do so remotely," he said. "It (the attack) need never be detectable by any means whatsoever from the interior of the network it serves."

An attacker, he said, could then command the router to, "stop processing anything it henceforth receives, start flooding the network with a broadcast signal that causes other peers to do the same, and zero the onboard firmware, thus preventing reboot for all time."


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