Is the Internet of Things just a dying buzzword with no real steam? How much of the potential is actually possible? What re the challenges? Vermin Hajdarbegovic takes-on some of the questions around IoT and IoT security in this Article originally appeared on toptal.com.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has been an industry buzzword for years, but sluggish development and limited commercialization have led some industry watchers to start calling it the “Internet of NoThings”.
Double puns aside, IoT development is in trouble. Aside from spawning geeky jokes unfit for most social occasions, the hype did not help; and, in fact, I believe it actually caused a lot more harm than good. There are a few problems with IoT, but all the positive coverage and baseless hype are one we could do without. The upside of generating more attention is clear: more investment, more VC funding, more consumer interest.
However, these come with an added level of scrutiny, which has made a number of shortcomings painfully obvious. After a couple of years of bullish forecasts and big promises, IoT security seems to be the biggest concern. The first few weeks of 2015 were not kind to this emerging industry, and most of the negative press revolved around security.
Was it justified? Was it just “fear, uncertainty and doubt” (FUD), brought about by years of hype? It was a bit of both; although some issues may have been overblown, the problems are very real, indeed.
From “Year Of IoT” To Annus Horribilis For IoT
Many commentators described 2015 as “the year of IoT,” but so far, it has been a year of bad press. Granted, there are still ten months to go, but negative reports keep piling on. Security firm Kaspersky recently ran a damning critique of IoT security challenges, with an unflattering headline, “Internet of Crappy Things”.
Kaspersky is no stranger to IoT criticism and controversy; the firm has been sounding alarm bells for a while, backing them up with examples of hacked smart homes, carwashes and even police surveillance systems. Whether a hacker wants to wash their ride free of charge, or stalk someone using their fitness tracker – IoT security flaws could make it possible.
Wind River published a white paper on IoT security in January 2015, and the report starts off with a sobering introduction. Titled Searching For The Silver Bullet, it summarizes the problem in just three paragraphs, which I will condense into a few points:
- Security must be the foundational enabler for IoT.
- There is currently no consensus on how to implement security in IoT on the device.
- A prevalent, and unrealistic, expectation is that it is somehow possible to compress 25 years of security evolution into novel IoT devices.
- There is no silver bullet that can effectively mitigate the threats.
However, there is some good news; the knowledge and experience are already here, but they have to be adapted to fit the unique constraints of IoT devices.
Unfortunately, this is where we as system security developers stumble upon another problem, a hardware problem.
U.S. Federal Trade Commission chairwoman, Edith Ramirez, addressed the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, warning that embedding sensors into everyday devices, and letting them record what we do, could pose a massive security risk.
Ramirez outlined three key challenges for the future of IoT:
- Ubiquitous data collection.
- Potential for unexpected uses of consumer data.
- Heightened security risks.
She urged companies to enhance privacy and built secure IoT devices by adopting a security-focused approach, reducing the amount of data collected by IoT devices, and increasing transparency and providing consumers with a choice to opt-out of data collection.
Ramirez went on to say that developers of IoT devices have not spent time thinking about how to secure their devices and services from cyberattacks.
“The small size and limited processing power of many connected devices could inhibit encryption and other robust security measures,” said Ramirez. “Moreover, some connected devices are low-cost and essentially disposable. If a vulnerability is discovered on that type of device, it may be difficult to update the software or apply a patch – or even to get news of a fix to consumers.”
While Ramirez is spot on in most respects, I should note that the Internet went through a similar phase two decades ago. There were a lot of security concerns, and the nineties saw the emergence of the internet-borne malware, DDoS attacks, sophisticated phishing and more. Even though Hollywood depicted a dystopian future in some films, we have ended up with kittens on social networks and a high-profile security breach here and there.
The Internet is still not secure, so we can’t expect IoT to be secure, either. However, security is constantly evolving to meet new challenges, we’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again, with IoT and subsequent connected technologies.
IoT Hardware Is And Will Remain A Problem
Some of you will be thinking that the hardware issues mentioned by the FTC boss will be addressed; yes, some of them probably will.
As the IoT market grows, we will see more investment, and as hardware matures, we will get improved security. Chipmakers like Intel and ARM will be keen to offer better security with each new generation, since security could be a market differentiator, allowing them to grab more design wins and gain a bigger share.
Technology always advances, so why not? New manufacturing processes generally result in faster and more efficient processors, and sooner or later, the gap will close, thus providing developers with enough processing power to implement better security features. However, I am not so sure this is a realistic scenario.
First of all IoT chips won’t be big money-makers since they are tiny and usually based on outdated architectures. For example, the first-generation Intel Edison platform is based on Quark processors, which essentially use the same CPU instruction set and much of the design of the ancient Pentium P54C. However, the next-generation Edison microcomputer is based on a much faster processor, based on Atom Silvermont cores, which is in many Windows and Android tablets, today. (Intel shipped ~46m Bay Trail SoCs in 2014.)
On the face of it, we could end up with relatively modern 64-bit x86 CPU cores in IoT devices, but they won’t come cheap, they will still be substantially more complex than the smallest ARM cores, and therefore will need more battery power.
Cheap and disposable wearables, which appear to be the FTC’s biggest concern, won’t be powered by such chips, at least, not anytime soon. Consumers may end up with more powerful processors, such as Intel Atoms or ARMv8 chips, in some smart products, like smart refrigerators or washing machines with touchscreens, but they are impractical for disposable devices with no displays and with limited battery capacity.
Selling complete platforms, or reference designs for various IoT devices, could help chipmakers generate more revenue, while at the same time introduce more standardisation and security. The last thing the industry needs is more unstandardized devices and more fragmentation. This may sound like a logical and sound approach, since developers would end up with fewer platforms and more resources would be allocated for security, however, security breaches would also affect a bigger number of devices.