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IoT's biggest threat: Systemic security flaws

Nearly every week, we read another story related to an IoT security breach or hack. For now, the vast majority of these are individual failures by vendors, but organizations are facing an existential risk as hackers focus on finding loopholes in IoT ecosystems — not just individual technical flaws, but systemic weaknesses in new and untested business models. As organizations rely more on IoT-powered products and services, the biggest threat to the industry’s ultimate success lies in security.

A perfect storm of security problems

IoT security is perceived as somebody else’s problem. Engineers are being pushed to focus on maximizing the functionality of individual devices, while broader security issues remain somebody else’s problem. Currently, the best we can hope for is that an individual IoT device will be secure against remote access for a few months after we’ve bought it. Developers are under huge pressure to release new features and products as rapidly as possible, and as a result make design assumptions to enable hardware to pass testing, but often set it up for failure in the real world.

Many IoT devices are hard to patch securely, if at all. A perfect example of the tradeoff between safety and reliability is patching IoT devices. If we make devices patchable, we create a massive, hard-wired security hole that allows a hacker to install whatever they choose. But if we don’t, we can’t fix known vulnerabilities. Add the minimal to nonexistent user interfaces associated with many IoT devices to the mix, throw in sporadic connectivity, and you’ve got a recipe for uncontrolled chaos.

IoT-based business models are untested. Thanks to the internet, I now find myself having to explain concepts such as the Yellow Pages, record shops, travel agents and even public libraries to my kids. All of these — along with many others — were massively disrupted by the original internet. IoT will be equally disruptive, and just as we can reasonably foresee cycles of hype and failure, we should also anticipate the belated discovery of hidden flaws, such as your location becoming public or your self-driving car being confused by pranksters with stop signs. While innovation of course requires risk, the high volume of unknowns for IoT business models means that businesses are learning and fixing at the same — or slower — pace as hackers seeking to exploit whatever weakness they find.

Each of the preceding factors alone would be a serious problem, but IoT faces them all — and more — simultaneously.

Despite the newness of IoT ecosystems, we can still look to older or traditional security models to mitigate risk and cope with these threats. I like to take a page out of the U.S. government’s procedures for safety devices used in nuclear weapons:

  • Security has to be built in from the very start, not layered on top afterwards.
  • Designers have to perform a balancing act between restricting functionality to prevent harm while still ensuring the device will work when needed.
  • Fail-safe is not a marketing term you toss around — it came about when tests showed that when exposed to heat, the solder on the circuit boards in a nuclear device would become liquid and dribble across the surface, creating new and very scary electrical paths. We’re already seeing a focus on doomsday scenarios appear with self-driving cars, where “who dies when a crash is inevitable?” is now a problem for software developers, not philosophers.

We need to take a step back and think very carefully about the potential systemic failure modes of future IoT ecosystems. We’re moving on from an era where technology either worked or failed into one where insidious behavior could rob consumers blind without them ever knowing. Unless the IoT industry starts looking at security and systemic failure modes seriously, it faces a real risk of a public fiasco that will destroy its credibility and potentially the entire industry.

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