Threats are now emerging beyond home and medical devices towards IoT control systems connected to national infrastructures. It is no exaggeration to say that IoT vulnerabilities are a threat to our national and personal security – dangers brought into sharp relief by the growing weaponisation of cybersecurity on the world stage

Cybersecurity agenda

Over the last decade, the scale of cyber attacks have increased dramatically and there has been a huge increase in the scale of cyber attacks against global IT infrastructures. The increase in the number of attack vectors enabled by the internet, the level of sophistication of the attacks, the ‘staying power’ of the cyber gangs, are all markers of how cybersecurity has become the subject of major international conflict.

The rewards of cyber crime over the last decade have been lavish and can be measured in trillions of dollars. And the size of this cyber treasure chest will only increase exponentially over the next decade.

The cyber war is an asymmetric battle. According to Carbon Black, cyber criminals are spending an estimated $1 trillion each year on finding weaknesses in the cyber defences of organisations and businesses, while the same organisations and businesses are spending a mere $96 billion per year to defend themselves against these attacks.

But it’s not always the case that these threats are created by what people in the West would call ‘rogue’ states or actors.

Militarisation of cyber attacks

The biggest single factor that has emerged in the cybersecurity landscape over the last decade is the brazen and overt participation of nation states in the battle. The size of a state’s cyber capability has now become the biggest statement of its national power and global influence.

So loud are the noises around cybersecurity that cyber-aggression appears to have bumped the threat of nuclear and biowarfare down the security agenda.

In the mid-noughties there appears to have been a joint US/Israeli project to attack Iran’s nuclear programme. A virus was created which attacked the SCADA infrastructure around this programme and thus the centrifuges which were being used to enrich uranium.

In the eyes of the UK government, cyberweapons have become the most effective deterrent against Russia (Credit: GCHQ/Crown Copyright)

Stuxnet surfaced once activated in 2010 when it preyed upon Siemens PLCs to the extent that around a third of Iran’s centrifuges were taken out of action. This might be termed a ‘successful’ attack upon the process control layer of a large utility project.

To say that cyber warfare is preferable to weapons of mass destruction might appear an understatement. However one should at the same time be mindful of the huge impacts cyber attacks could have on energy and utility companies, upon hospitals, and upon the military apparatus and democratic institutions we take for granted. Lives can be placed at risk.

Internet of Things

The massive increase in the number of devices connected to the internet continues unabated. This year there will be in the region of 23bn connected devices. This number is projected by IHS to rise to 75bn by 2025. This huge growth presents an ever increasing ‘attack surface’ for the cyber gangs to attack.

The only thing stopping significant disruption is fear of reprisals

The traditional target area for IoT cyber attacks has its origins very much in the home device front. A prime example would be the 2016 Mirai botnet attack which infected around 600,000 IoT devices. The devices affected in the main were internet routers, but connected cameras were also compromised.

Mirai wreaked havoc by launching a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack and overwhelming the devices’ networks.

By 2018 the hackers had switched their focus to the wireless protocols which exist for smart home devices, specifically the Z-Wave wireless protocol. This year, a vulnerability was discovered which affected up to 100 million smart home devices. Burglar alarms, security cameras, and door locks could be disabled, for example, allowing thieves to enter unchecked.

Another major area of vulnerability is that of accessing an individual’s home banking systems via the ‘voice hacking’ of smart speakers.

The recent news about FreeRTOS – a real-time operating system ported to around 35 microcontroller platforms – being an easy target for hackers has further eroded confidence in the security of IoT home devices.

As well as connected domestic appliances there is growing concern about the threats to healthcare devices. There are around 100m such devices installed worldwide. From insulin pumps, to diagnostic equipment, to remote patient monitoring, the areas for potential attack are huge and life-threatening.

Industrial IoT

Cybersecurity firm Carbon Black issued its Quarterly Incident Response Threat Report in November. The report represents an analysis of the latest attack trends seen by the world’s top incident response (IR) firms.

The report found that a growing number of attacks are now taking advantage of IoT vulnerabilities. An alarming 38 percent of IR professionals saw attacks on enterprise IoT devices, which can become a point of entry to organisations’ primary networks, allowing island hopping (whereby attackers target organisations with the intention of accessing an affiliate’s network).

Computer screens within Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility

This latter point underscores the continuing trend of exploiting IoT devices in the enterprise domain to attack business and to move from there into other ‘supply chain’ networks in order to disrupt additional enterprise operations.

The threats emerging away from these home and medical devices towards IoT control systems connected to national infrastructures are increasing in number and truly terrifying.

A nation’s vital utility infrastructure could potentially be brought to its knees by cyber attacks against the IoT device layer

Process control devices in the industrial world present vulnerabilities in our oil and gas industries, and in our water purification and power plants. A nation’s vital utility infrastructure could potentially be brought to its knees by cyber attacks against the IoT device layer.

This threat isn’t new, although comparatively rare in the past. The Industroyer (Crashoverride) malware framework took out approximately one fifth of Kiev’s power for one hour in December 2015. A number of other different malware attacks targeted against industrial control systems in energy plants have also been discovered in the last few years.

It is now well understood that nation states such as Russia, China and North Korea have been probing other nations’ power generation facilities with a view to potential future hacks. The dangers are well understood by many governments but as of yet these vital infrastructure areas are still massively vulnerable to attack.

Understanding the risks

Only recently, Ciaran Martin, head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (the NCSC) gave an apocalyptic warning about cyber threats to the UK. Martin said that Britain will be hit by a life-threatening ‘category 1’ cyber emergency in the near future.

Similar warnings have been coming out of the US recently, and President Trump’s National Cyber Strategy outlined the same types of threats against US infrastructure. Trump has constantly talked about the threats to US Power Grids – primarily again via the IoT layer – and it’s an area of deep concern for the Federal Government.

In the last month, Trump has been offering to share cyber attack and defence capabilities with NATO allies at the same time as UN calls for an ‘amnesty’ in the use of cyber attacks against critical infrastructures.

But at the business level the understanding of cyber risks is patchy. British business is predominantly uneducated and complacent when it comes to the risks posed by cyber threats and the vulnerability of IoT devices wherever they might be on their network.

Ciaran Martin

UK Cyber defence chief Ciaran Martin

Who is responsible?

In the IoT domain for both home and enterprise devices we need secure device design and manufacture, secure deployment, and secure onward protection.

It is the device manufacturer’s responsibility that IoT devices are delivered uninfected with malware, or rogue components. They have a responsibility to ensure that default passwords cannot be implemented in a live environment and to ensure that system software is able to be patched and updated going forward as new threats are understood.

But there is a dual responsibility between device supplier and the end user. Users of these devices in public sector organisations and business enterprises also have a responsibility to ensure that this layer of their IT infrastructure is of itself secure and that it cannot be compromised by weaknesses in other layers of their own cyber defence, or by malware which might be passed on through their supply chain, i.e. ‘island hopping.’

The role of businesses

Starting with the boardroom, businesses must enact a top-down approach to avoid backlash from the market. All companies should be aware that their cybersecurity will be subject to considerable public scrutiny when things go wrong. The directors of companies need to take an active interest in their companies’ cybersecurity policies.

News published in early November told us that Facebook had lost 1m users in Europe in the last couple of months after its highly publicised breaches, and we can expect them to lose more user share going forward.

The threats emerging away from these home and medical devices towards IoT control systems connected to national infrastructures are increasing in number and truly terrifying

In the home IoT market, consumer confidence is key. If any particular brand of fridge, TV, baby alarm, speaker, or burglar alarm was exposed as being the source of attacks, consumers will vote with their wallets.

A recent survey conducted by Opinium in the UK showed that businesses which were breached or caused other businesses to be breached would experience repercussions from other businesses.

One in five businesses would take legal action to recover financial losses incurred from a breach as a result of a supplier’s negligence, and a similar number would use the incident to negotiate a further discount. Just three percent of businesses said they would take no action.

Process control devices in the industrial world present vulnerabilities in our oil and gas industries, and in our water purification and power plants

The survey also showed that victims of cybercrime could find it more difficult to attract new customers, with 35 percent of the business leaders questioned saying they would not work with a supplier they thought would make them more vulnerable to cybercrime. Just over a quarter said they would avoid using a company that had been publicly associated with a major cybersecurity breach.

Shareholders tend to react when market share is impacted, when the brand of a company is trashed in the market, or when a CEO’s position is undermined by high profile incidents.

CEOs and senior executives have been put on notice that the buck stops with the boardroom. The directors of companies need to take an active interest in their companies’ cybersecurity policies.

Regulatory headwinds

Although only guidelines, the UK has made an admirable headstart towards IoT regulation with its recently released ‘secure by design’ guidelines.

The code – which the government claims is a ‘world first’ – has 13 guidelines, to ensure connected items are ‘secure by design’. It is long overdue and needs to be replicated by other countries.

The guidelines include: no default passwords; a vulnerability disclosure policy; pushed software updates; the secure storage of credentials and security-sensitive data; encrypted in transit communications and secure key management; resilience to outages; monitoring of telemetry data; and making it easy for users to delete personal data from any device.

CEOs and senior executives have been put on notice that the buck stops with the boardroom. The directors of companies need to take an active interest in their companies’ cybersecurity policies

The code of practice is designed with the home device market in mind. However, the guidelines can have a strong influence on the move towards industrial IoT regulatory requirements too.

In this latter scenario, primary responsibility would pass more towards the implementer or the end user of the industrial control technology.

It’s remarkable that these guidelines took so long to surface given the UK’s long history of consumer protection.

Similarly, the EU has a history of tackling technology giants who impinge on the privacy of individuals (GDPR being the latest culmination), so it’s surprising that a similar code of practice hasn’t emerged from Brussels yet. We can only assume that regulations are ‘in the pipeline.’

As for the IoT layer in the enterprise domain, the IIoT, expect a lot of focus to be driven by governments anxious to protect core businesses and infrastructure. Oil, gas, power generation, aviation and water industries are all highly dependent on IoT to run their businesses effectively.

These are obviously all vulnerable right now. It’s clear that notice has been given by aggressor states that these infrastructures are eminently hackable. It seems to me that the only thing stopping significant disruption is fear of reprisals.

Take The Sunday Times report in October that claimed British military forces had practised a cyber attack that would ‘plunge Moscow into darkness.’ This attack would be an immediate response if Putin’s forces were to move against the West.

Britain no longer possesses small battlefield nuclear weapons – in the eyes of the UK government and many others, cyberweapons have become the most effective military deterrent.