The Internet of Things, and now the U.S federal government along with it, have a problem. Devices are smart enough to impact the world around them, but aren’t built smart enough to protect themselves. In the recent past, these devices have been maliciously commandeered to bring down large swathes of the Internet, steal sensitive information, send spam emails, spy on individuals, and bring a whole city to its knees.
The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one, and the Senate took this step with the introduction of the “Internet of Things Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017”.
The new legislation introduced by Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Cory Gardner, sets minimum standards for the manufacturing, deployment and maintenance of IoT devices purchased by the U.S federal government. It received inputs from technology experts at the Atlantic Council and Harvard University to address cyber attacks that leverage IoT devices. The bill is aimed at responding to the “obvious market failures,” said Warner in an interview with Reuters and also to prevent further intrusions into federal systems “without halting the life-changing innovations that continue to develop in the IoT space,” said Gardner.
The key provisions of the bill are:
- The manufacturer or the contractor of the device to the federal government must provide a written certification bearing, but not limited to the following:
- No known vulnerabilities are to be present at the time of delivery of the device. If present, mitigation strategies are to be disclosed to the agency in detail.
- Any updates to the device (inclusive of hardware, software and firmware) are to be properly authenticated by means such as digital signatures.
- The devices are to use only non-deprecated industry-standard protocols and technologies.
- The devices will not have fixed or hard-coded credentials such as usernames, passwords, tokens, cryptographic keys and other authentication primitives and that these credentials will not be modified or revoked by the user or manufacturer, except via an authenticated firmware update.
- The U.S federal government and associated agencies are to outline policies and procedures for conducting cybersecurity research on Internet-connected devices and safeguards for such well-meaning and good-intended researches from criminal liabilities or penalties.
- Finally, that if an existing third-party security standard for Internet-connected devices provides an equivalent or greater level of security, an executive agency may allow a contractor to demonstrate compliance with that standard in lieu of the requirements followed by a written certification that the device complies with the security requirements of the industry.
Assuming this bill passes, what does this mean for enterprises purchasing IoT devices? In theory, the purchasing power of the federal government should lead large IoT manufacturers to start following these minimum security standards, which would benefit all companies by default. However, an enterprise should not assume this to be the case. Companies should use the key provisions in the Senate bill as guidelines to discuss with their device manufacturers before a purchase. Ask your suppliers if they meet these provisions, and if not, where they have gaps and what their plan is to fill them.
For device manufacturers, this bill will affect your approach to security. Let’s look at each requirement and its possible ramifications:
- No known vulnerabilities are to be present at the time of delivery of the device to the federal government:
There are several nuances in this point that should be explored. First, a vulnerability must be known to be covered by this provision. It’s not perfectly clear if it is specifying if the word ‘known’ means ‘publicly known’ or just ‘known by the company’, but I would guess the latter. Assuming it’s known, the company has two options: fix it or report it at procurement time along with mitigation strategies. Taking this into account, what is the incentive for manufacturers to perform detailed security testing? This is where the provision on cybersecurity research comes in. Since cybersecurity research is encouraged, it is likely someone will find vulnerabilities in your products. It is generally in the company’s best interest to find vulnerabilities internally and patch them rather than have a vulnerability exposed publicly.
Finding vulnerabilities in IoT devices includes software vulnerabilities, but there are also key hardware tests that should be performed. IoT hardware testing involves attacks such as side channel attacks, fault injection, imaging and IC modification. The testing process also involves source code audit, deobfuscation testing, fuzzing, cryptography implementation audit, software vulnerability verification, assessment of long-range wireless IoT protocols and of short-range communication protocols. The assessment process can be daunting to device manufacturers, but some IoT security solutions companies have the skills and experience to perform advanced hardware penetration testing (device, application, network) while leveraging proprietary security schemes and security intelligence.
Remember that device manufacturers do have the option to mitigate vulnerabilities without fixing the root cause. The vulnerability and mitigation strategy need to be disclosed at the time of delivery. In general, the manufacturer should continue to work on mitigating the vulnerability completely and integrate it into their future upgrades to the device, if applicable.
- Any updates to the device (inclusive of hardware, software and firmware) are to be properly authenticated by means such as: digital signatures: This provision is relatively straightforward: updates should be authorized and authenticated before they are applied to the device. There is no language that indicates this is a reference to over–the-air updates only, so even locally initiated updates need to be secure. Generally, authentication uses digital signatures, which can be challenging to implement correctly at scale. Device manufactures that lack expertise to implement or assess the implementation of PKI could rely on security solution companies to provide key management solutions that involve online and secure generation of device keys. Alternatively, device manufacturers can use third-party solutions to manage their updates that provide authentication.
- The devices are to use only non-deprecated industry-standard protocols and technologies: The federal government expects the device manufactures to adhere to industry security best practices for the manufacturing of the devices and hence, on those grounds, the device manufactures would need to stay abreast with the current trends and practices in the field of cybersecurity. Although it is best practice to use the latest version of protocols and technology if possible, this provision only prohibits deprecated technology (such as the MD5 algorithm). Device manufacturers could rely on technology consulting or security advisory companies for guidance in implementing these solutions.
- The devices will not have fixed or hard-coded credentials such as – usernames, passwords, tokens, cryptographic keys and other authentication primitives and that these credentials will not be modified or revoked by the user or manufacturer, except via an authenticated firmware update: Hard coded and global credentials have been the root of many IoT security incidents in the last two years. This provision ensures that keys and credentials can be changed or rotated, and hopefully are not set globally on all devices (although this isn’t technically in the provision). It also mandates that any changes to credentials be done in a secure fashion. Rotating device secrets securely at scale is a challenging undertaking, and should be approached with care. There are IoT platform vendors that provide this service today, and unless a manufacturer already has an infrastructure to support this, they should consider using third-party support.
- To outline policies and procedures for conducting cybersecurity research on Internet-connected devices and safeguards for such well-meaning and good-intended researches from criminal liabilities or penalties: Cybersecurity research usually involves breaking into things (this involves open source and proprietary devices, protocols, softwares, hardwares, etc.) and anything that requires breaking without prior notice or permission may be considered a crime. While the procedures to obtain permission can be rigid and expensive, it leaves little room for cybersecurity researchers to perform experiments and studies and to provide the best security measure to safeguard devices. This in turn, results in limited knowledge among device manufacturers about the best way to secure the devices. By being more open to cybersecurity research on IoT, the device manufactures could invest into cybersecurity research and the IoT community as a whole stands to benefit from the outcomes of the research as has been in the field of digital media (robust watermarking and anti-piracy technologies have morphed and evolved through over decades of research and experiments)
- Finally, that if an existing third-party security standard for Internet-connected devices provides an equivalent or greater level of security, an executive agency may allow a contractor to demonstrate compliance with that standard in lieu of the requirements followed by a written certification that the device complies with the security requirements of the industry: This provision allows the device manufacturers to employ third-party institutes to evaluate and certify their devices from a security perspective. One example of a device certification is the CSPN from ANSSI (L’Agence Nationale de la Sécurité des Systèmes d’Information).
Though the proposals and guidelines will later be detailed by NIST and other related federal agencies (provided the bill is passed), it is a safe bet to say that IoT security is imminent. Through rapid and educated investments in advanced labs and strong R&D base, device manufacturers can be uniquely placed to meet current and future security requirements of this fast-growing industry. Alternatively, device manufacturers also have several options to partner with IoT security solution companies that provide in-depth security assessments and evaluations of IoT products allowing the device manufacturers to identify and address security vulnerabilities before products go to market, and helping ensure their company doesn’t become the next big cyberattack headline.
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