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The Dark Side of the Internet of Things

In recent years ‘IoT’ (Internet of Things) devices have become ubiquitous. Chances are that if you buy an electronic device today it will have some kind of internet connectivity option (a neighbour recently showed off his wifi enabled lightbulbs to me).

 

Unfortunately, in the quest to make these devices as simple, easy to use, and efficient as possible, security concerns have often taken a back seat. What people tend to forget about their smart fridge or intelligent toaster, is that, while they may seem fairly innocuous, they are still, essentially, computers. Should a nefarious individual gain illicit access to one of these devices they can be just as dangerous to your network as a compromised desktop PC.

 

The common misconception, that there is very little damage that can be done with a smart device, probably stems from the fact that we believe these devices to be specifically tailored towards a single task. We believe them to be incapable of doing anything other than advising us when the milk has run out, or telling us when the toast is done. Peek under the hood of one these devices, however, and you will most likely find a fairly generic low power computer, running a stripped down version of a well-known operating system.

 

Of course in the interests of efficiency many of the usual security features that might run on a normal desktop PC won’t necessarily be running on your smart device. Built in firewall? Unlikely. Anti-virus software? Doubtful. Automatic updates? Don’t count on it. What you are left with then, is an insecure, but still quite capable machine, directly connected to your network.

 

So what can a potential attacker actually do with one of these devices? Quite frankly this depends on the level of control they have managed to leverage, and the nature of the device, but with administrator access the possibilities are worryingly broad. This would, however, require a particularly dedicated and well informed hacker.

 

In reality the most likely thing that will happen is that your device will be used to launch attacks against others, normally as part of a ‘botnet’. A botnet is the name given to a collection of compromised computers, and they fast are becoming a real problem for the internet.

 

One of the most prolific DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks of 2016, which resulted in large swaths of the internet going down, utilised something known as the Marai botnet, which consisted almost entirely of compromised IoT devices.

 

These kind of attacks utilise the collective bandwidth of these compromised devices to overwhelm a target with traffic, either causing it to collapse completely, or just become unresponsive to legitimate users.

 

This doesn’t just cause problems for the target though, one of the side effects is that those unsuspecting individuals whose devices have been compromised suffer from poor network performance because their internet connection is being hijacked by their compromised smart device.

So what can you do to prevent your IoT device from falling victim to opportunistic hacking? Truth be told there are lots of things that can be done, ranging from disabling uPnP, applying access control lists to port forwards, or purchasing a device with IDS or IPS functionality. They all have their pro’s and con’s, and some will be outside the budget, or technical expertise of smaller companies.

The myriad ways in which we can secure IoT devices is beyond the scope of this post, but one thing everyone should absolutely be doing with any IoT device is to change the default password on it.

I cannot stress this enough, and I know it sounds obvious to the point of being patronising, but an article on from The Inquirer suggests that 15 percent of people do not change the default passwords on their IoT devices. Combine default passwords with some ill-advised port forwarding, and it’s only a matter of time before your Router, DVR, Security Camera, or Smart Fridge becomes part of the next big Botnot (trust me, it’s already happened).

 

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