The Future of IoT Security

With the onset of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, an enormous number of devices are now accessible via the Internet and are therefore vulnerable to cyberattack. Society is still adjusting to the fact that devices that people used to trust can now betray them in unexpected ways. Your television may expose your conversations, your printer may divulge your documents, and your fitness monitor may reveal your health information. All of these attacks become possible in the presence of IoT devices which are not designed with security in mind. System designers are trained to evaluate system design options in terms of their impact on system characteristics such as power, performance, and time-to-market, but security is a property which is less well understood. Designers of IoT devices need to have the ability to consider, both qualitatively and quantitatively, how design alternatives affect the security of the system. To do that, designers must understand the essential aspects of common cyberattacks.

The nature of cyberattacks is broad and ever-changing as attackers alter their techniques over time. However, there are a number of attack themes which are fundamental to many cyberattacks and change only infrequently. Designers need to understand these important attack themes and how to defend against them. A good example is a vulnerability to a buffer overflow attack which is usually a result of weak coding practices, such as neglecting to verify that the amount of data written into a buffer is not greater than the size of the buffer. Defense against buffer overflow can likely be achieved through static code analysis and proper testing techniques, without the need to include any security components in the IoT device.

Another attack against IoT devices is a battery draining attack which consumes power by exploiting features of the network communication protocol being used by the device. Different protocols, and their interface controllers, have different degrees of vulnerability to such attacks, and the system designer needs to be aware of this when selecting a communication protocol.

This essay appears in Circuit Cellar 309, April 2016. Subscribe to Circuit Cellar to read project articles, essays, interviews, and tutorials every month!

Defending against some attacks will require the use of software and hardware components which are dedicated to security-related tasks. Such components incur overheads which must be considered by the designer. A common example is whether or not to use encryption, what type of encryption, and whether that encryption should be implemented in hardware or software. Besides the power and cost trade-offs involved, the designer will need to be able to estimate how well each type of encryption protects the system from, for example, a man-in-the-middle attack which intercepts communications with other devices.

IoT security is clearly an important design property which must be considered by designers who understand the complexities of cybersecurity. A problem for the field of IoT is that there is a shortage of IoT designers who understand cybersecurity. There is a range of possible solutions to address the shortage problem which vary based on who takes responsibility to find a solution. One alternative is education or training to ensure that designers are aware of the complexities of the security problem and can address them during the design process. Individual IoT designers may take responsibility for their own training, which means that the designer will individually seek out learning materials and possibly courses. As a professor I feel that individuals should always take responsibility for their own education, but in practice this is difficult and may not consistently result in the best outcome for all concerned. An individual who is not familiar with security will have a hard time determining what is important to learn and what is not, so they may waste time and money on education with no real value. In my role as Vice Chair of Undergraduate Studies, I am frequently asked about what a student needs to learn to be productive in industry, but if an individual cannot find an appropriate mentor to provide them with some direction, then their attempts at education may not be fruitful.

Another alternative is to place the responsibility for the development of secure IoT devices on the companies which employ the designers and sell the IoT devices. For this to happen, company managers must first accept that security costs money and that security is worth some expenditure. As long as security is seen as an overhead with no direct financial benefit, industry is not be motivated to make the necessary changes to build secure systems. Too often, security is largely ignored until a successful cyberattack against a company is publicized and the company suffers in terms of reputation and possible lawsuits. Industry needs to accept the importance of security upfront to avoid the more significant costs of dealing with successful attacks.

Companies can take several different approaches to ensuring security including guaranteeing that their designers are appropriately knowledgeable about IoT security. A salary premium for security experts could motivate employees to take responsibility for their own security education. In-house corporate training can be provided to employees whose job responsibilities necessitate an understanding of security. Employers can outsource and pay for education at local or online schools. When a project is particularly security-sensitive requiring more expertise than is available internally, a contractor with the appropriate security expertise can be brought in. All of these options incur different costs which would need to be justified by the need for security in the market where the IoT devices will be used.

Eventually, a mixture of these approaches should be employed to achieve the best, and most secure, results. Individual designers need to make every effort to learn about security issues, and employers need to motivate them with appropriate salaries and facilitate their efforts by providing opportunities for education. The lack of security of current IoT devices has been used as an argument against their adoption, but there seems to be no stopping the growing use of the IoT. At the same time, cyberattacks are also growing in number, sophistication, and financial impact. Security needs to be a first-class design consideration for IoT systems, on par with cost, power, and the other constraints that embedded designers have always dealt with.

Associate Professor Ian G. Harris earned a BS in Computer Science at MIT and MS and PhD degrees in Computer Science from the University of California San Diego. He is currently Vice Chair of Undergraduate Education in the Computer Science Department at the University of California Irvine. His research group focuses on the security and verification of Internet of Things systems. He also teaches an IoT specialization entitled “An Introduction to Programming the Internet of Things.”