On Manufacturing, IoTs and IT Security

Since many years we are quite used to the fact that products, of any kind, contain digital and electronic components. The process of manufacturing products and integrating digital and/or electronic components is by now quite well established and robust. The most important requirements to the digital / electronic components is that they perform their tasks correctly, effortlessly and that they are reliable. Security is mostly perceived as safety for example from electric shock or from the behaviour of the product induced by the digital / electronic components. It is not important that the digital component has features which are not used by the product, or that it has been designed for other purposes as far as it performs correctly as a component of the product.

But the scenario changes dramatically if the digital component is connected to a network, in particular Internet. In this case the product becomes part of the “Internet of Things” (IoTs). Then the security perspective changes completely. For example, those unused features of the digital component, if not correctly configured and managed, can be abused and become a serious security threat. What bad can be done with a washing machine connected to Internet? Difficult to say, but if out of imagination one can always try to join the washing machine to a botnet for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

So the manufacturer should also take care of the full IT security of any digital / electronic component embedded in its products. This means that even unused features must be configured, managed and updated.

But this is not all. The interaction between components in a product can create new type of security threats, which can be considered like side-channel threats and attacks. The abuse and misuse of digital components can be quite inventive, for example recently in the news I have noticed the following:

  • how to use a scanner to communicate through a laser mounted on a drone with a malware on a PC (see eg. this article)
  • how a smartphone or laptop’s ambient light sensor can be used to steal the browsing history from the device (see eg. this article)
  • how to install malware on a Smart TVs using the DVB terrestrial radio signals (see eg. this article)

and others concerning light-bulbs, surveillance cameras etc.

Typically in IT security one has first to describe clearly what are the threat scenarios and based on these to evaluate the risks and the security measures needed to mitigate these risks. In the case of IoTs it seems very difficult to imagine all possible threat scenarios due to the interaction between embedded digital Internet-connected components and the other product’s components.

Even more difficult is to imagine how, in the current markets, manufacturers of products like lightbulbs, refrigerators, television sets and more or less anything else one can imagine, can devote time and money to the security of embedded digital components produced by someone else, which should just work, cost as little as possible and not be maintained.

PS. Products like cars, airplanes etc. in regulated sectors, should constitute a welcome exception to this, thanks to the very stringent safety concerns and rules that apply to them.

PPS. Also of interest is this, just appeared, Microsoft whitepaper on Cybersecurity Policy for IoTs.